I certainly hadn’t intended on reading a novel about the American Civil War. But then again, I’m not really sure why I was all that suprised since it is stated plainly on the back of the book. I think what captured me initially about this book was the idea of following the father of the March family from Little Women (one of my favourite movies when I was young).
What Brooks did beautifully in this book was to portray the complexity of history, the good guys aren’t all good, the bad guys aren’t all bad. I often wonder what the Civil War was really about, as poor, uneducated men could surely not have been mobilised to fight a war on behalf of an oppressed and enslaved people. If not, then what were they really fighting for? This book highlights the same idea, that while many individuals were mobilised by ideals of emancipation, the majority were just fighting someone elses war. This is how the overt and barbaric racism could exist within the Union army, and also how African Americans could fight for the Confederates.History is always a complicated thing, and stark depictions of the ‘truth’ never appeal to me.
I was interested in tracking the power relations throughout the book, particularly between Grace and March. In the beginning he is awed by her, then comes to rely on the ideal of her as faultless perfection, in this representing all African Americans needing to be saved from their enslavement. Finally, Grace takes back her power, telling March forecfully “We have had enough of white people ordering our existence! There are men of my own race more versed in how to fetch and carry than you ever will be. And there are Negro preachers aplenty who know the true language of our souls. A free people must learn to manage its own destiny.”
The language is, as in Year of Wonders, matched to the time in its spirit. My boss was looking at the book and noted how Brooks uses language, where she melds in the use of technical language seamlessly to give you a sense of the time without being a flashy know-all. “Less skillful pickers had to grasp the boll with one hand and pluck the staple with the other.” I have no idea what a boll and staple are, but you get a feel for what it means in the context of the paragraph which I really admire.
This book is marketed as a love story, yet I really don’t know who the love is between. Surely, most obviously, it is between Marmee and March. Yet there is also March and his ideals, there is Grace, and the children and the adults of Oak Landing. Yet, where do his beautiful girls fit in? The ones that I loved when I was young; Jo, who I felt I wanted to be when I grew up, Beth with her goodness, Amy, who I actually never really felt any effection for and Meg who always seemed to me like my own older sister.Perhaps the true love was that which Marmee points out; his fabrication of the truth in his letters home to his little women “How he must have toiled over those pages, denying himself the satisfactions that come with unburdening the heart, censoring his every sentiment so that I could continue to think only the best of him and cast his situation in a tolerable light. And I had been ready to condemn him, for what had been, perhaps, a daily act of love.”
I really appreciate what she did to the characters of Marmee and March, as she points out in the afterword “Nobody in real life is such a goody-goody as that Marmee.” and so she wasn’t. She had an admirable temper, was passionate in her early love for her husband and yet, was also secretly and subtly racist. This racism isn’t anything to be admired, it was just a feature of her I didn’t really expect and certainly one that isn’t present in other depictions of her.
This was, once again, a beautifully written story about something actually very tragic. Yet, as with Year of Wonders, it didn’t wallow in depression, it merely sifts through the complicated realities of life.
Now reading: In between books! Quick! Find me a book!