March, a chaplain and father living in Concord at the time of the Civil War, enlists on a whim, while touched by the young enlisted in his town preparing to leave. Attached to an infantry as chaplain, his duties encompass far more than administering comfort to the dying in the field. He is caught in the middle of fierce battles where he is called upon to save lives sometimes directly and other times as assistant to the medical staff.
Early in the story, March finds himself back where he had once been in his youth, a large mansion, owned by a wealthy and cultured man named Clement, which, on his first visit, before the war, had been a source of great pleasures for March: the library, the conversations with Clement and Grace, the mulatto slave. Now the mansion lay in ruins, its rooms filled with ailing soldiers. On his first visit, Grace had had an irreversible impact on him. He meets her again now, as a married man.
Through all his ordeals and moral discomfort, March writes home to his wife and four daughters, as promissed. He does so dutifully but fails to report any of the horrors of war and even less of the horrors within. His letters are upbeat while his experiences are paiful and morally trying. His inability to tell the truth itself constitutes yet another source of turmoil within him.
A transfer puts him on a cotton plantation managed by a Northerner and manned by free former slaves. March is involved in teaching the workforce during what spare time he manages to obtain for them between crop duties. What appears to be a hopeful situation at first soon becomes threatened by the usurped locals looking to return the South to its former condition. The farm is in increasing danger while the crops must return a profit at all costs to prove the venture viable. These two diverging forces prove to be the demise of both the farm and March.
Injured and rescued March is transported, unconscious to a hospital in Washington where his wife is summoned. Slipping in and out of consciousness he is one more time in the presence of Grace who attends him as a nurse.
This report prepared by Diane Richard
March is Geraldine Brook's fictional account of what happened to the father of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Ms. Brooks has an afterword and explains that she took some of the missing details—the father being gone—and combined them with some anecdotes from various books she read and on Louisa May Alcott's father, who held radical ideas for the time and was much-published. From his writings, she drew part of her character of Mr. March, the girl's father, even though she plays with the timeframe and makes Mr. March 40-ish whereas Mr. Alcott would have been sixty-ish at the same time. So from Little Women and many other sources, she creates the fictional world of Mr. March's experiences during the Civil War.
By its nature—Mr. March is in the South during the Civil War—it is brutal. It is graphically brutal, in places, and brutal by inference or relation of a tale, but mostly it is just not the innocent book that Little Women is. At the same time, I have to say that I enjoyed it.
Mr. March is very idealistic and is somewhat radical in his notions. He is an abolitionist and participates in the Underground Railroad. He socializes with Emerson and Thoreau (which Mr. Alcott did in his real life) as they all live in the Concord area. The book goes back and forth between telling of Mr. March's time in the South and where he goes and what happens and back in time to his courtship with Marmee (who is much more human and has more human failings in this book than in Little Women). So its sweet and brutal, all at various times. Before he met Marmee, he had an encounter with a slave girl, an innocent one, but a loving one. She reappears near the end of the book and is working in a hospital where he ends up near the end of the book. That provides some thread between his young self and old, embittered, deeply saddened self. While in the South, he works at a plantation that is leased to a slightly crippled Northern man. Mr. March is sent by the Army to help the former slaves on the plantation, who are still working there, in whatever way he can and to educate them. So at the end of their long days of physical labor, he would undertake to teach them reading and writing and a general education. He develops relationships with everyone there, with his simple decency and common goodness and by acting as if all are equal and bringing closer together the somewhat bitter young man who is leasing the place and the black slaves. He improves their lot—in ways large and small—and is saved by them during a brutal encounter where Southern “rebels” put the place under fire and try to take away the slaves they don't kill. It is an interesting book about the Civil War and one man's experience of it. It makes Little Women seem somewhat sugary-sweet and very innocent in comparison and I thought to give up reading this when I first started.
This report prepared by Diana Rhoades