March by Geraldine Brooks – Book Review

March by Geraldine Brooks
Published by Penguin

When I reread Little Women this year, one thing that stood out to me more than anything else was just how completely absent Mr. March was from the story. I actually found him more present during the section when he is away at war, because his absence and more of an effect on the lives of his daughters than did his presence. Who is this man who meant so much to his daughters when he was gone, but seemed to mean so little when he came back? Even Sallie Moffat has better character development than Mr. March! Where Louisa May Alcott leaves a hole, however, Geraldine Brooks steps in to fill it. March details Mr. March’s sojourn to the South as a young man, and his return as a chaplain with the Union Army during the Civil War.

The Mr. March of Brooks’s imaginings is a deeply flawed man. He lusts after other women, even after marrying Marmee, and is about the least comforting and inspiring chaplain in the history of chaplains. He’s so bad, in fact, that he is basically fired from this job and shunted to a different army post where he won’t annoy an entire company of soldiers. But not only is Mr. March flawed, Marmee is flawed as well! She’s very conflicted about her husband gallivanting off to war, and puts on a brave face for her daughters.

I know that some readers are very bothered by these no longer idealized characters of Mr. March and Marmee, but as a parent – and a human being – I found them incredibly reassuring. Who can live up to the example of Marmee in Little Women, really? She is ever good, right-thinking and right-feeling. Someone who does not worry about material goods but is quite content to make do. Yet, as Geraldine Brooks writes her, Marmee is human. She can be furious with her husband, frustrated at their situation, but continue to put on a show for her daughters so that they do not feel the depths of their poverty, so they do not worry overmuch about their father. This, people, is parenting. How much more a realistic role model she is now to everyone who reads her story.

Mr. March is perhaps not actually made to be more sympathetic and realistic in March, but he does harken back to Louisa May Alcott’s ACTUAL crazypants father, Bronson Alcott far more than the canonical Mr. March does, which makes him very interesting at least, and a good stepping stone for curious readers to learn just what Louisa and her family lived with.

Although some parts of March were so Bronson that I didn’t feel they quite fit into Little Women, I still really enjoyed where Brooks took the story. Recommended.

I read this book for the episode of my What’s Old is New podcast about Little Women.

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Source: Personal copy.
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23 comments to March by Geraldine Brooks – Book Review

  • Hooray! I’m so glad you read (and reviewed) this book. I found it very challenging at points, but especially loved the portrayal of a difficult Marmee. Definitely worth the accolades it got, though I can see how it feels like sacrilege to some.

  • This is our Community read for 2011. I need to pick it soon. Should I read Little Women first?

  • The People of the Book is one of my all-time favorite books so I picked up March and Year of Wonders but I haven’t read either yet. I really going to have to get to March.

    And thank you, I thought old Bronson Alcott was a major crazypants

    • I would not, in fact, be surprised if the term crazypants was created FOR Bronson.

      This is the third of her books I have read, I think. Year of Wonders was my favorite, then March, then People of the Book.

  • I’m a slavish Alcott fan and rather big Bronson hater so that already had me iffy about picking this up — but I’m sort of curious now after your review! I love the humanizing of characters and knowing that Alcott was a far more complicated woman than she has been painted to be, March seems like a lovely homage. Still — I don’t know if I can get past the Bronson-ness of Mr March. Sadly, I really disliked Year of Wonders so I’m not sure Brooks’ writing is really for me.

  • I’ve only read Brooks’ Year of Wonders, but that was so good that it really made me want to read her other works. I found it fascinating that she took a real story about a town that quarantined itself when it got the plague, and made it come alive with its characters. I am assuming she uses this talent in all her books.

  • Meg

    I read (and loved) this book a few years back — and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never actually read Little Women. I wonder how my take of March would change had I actually read Alcott’s masterpiece? I’ve had it languishing on my shelves for years… I really need to get off my duff and read it.

  • This sounds excellent. I do appreciate seeing the human side of parenting. It seems like people are expected to give up almost everything that they are for their children, it’s so easy to forget that being a good parent and being a good person are both almost impossible due to our ingrained flaws.

    As a side note, I really enjoyed another reimagining of Little Women. As far as paranormal mashups go, you could do a lot worse than Little Women and Werewolves.

    • I’ve heard that. I just don’t seem to be able to really get into the mashups. I can do about 75 pages, and then I just get sort of bored with the joke.

  • You know I’m not a fan of Bronson. I think I need to read this to see how I react to Mr. March.

  • Amy

    I have March but haven’t read it yet. I had no idea that Mr. March is made to be such a scoundrel. I prefer knowing ahead of time so I’m not taken by surprise over this. I’m not completely happy about it but I like the way you look at it, Jen. I think you’re right that Marmee is too perfect in Little Women and no one can live up to her(I think one of the Little Women laments this fact!). It sounds like Brooks goes a little far with making Mr. March a less than perfect man but it makes the book more interesting, too! And Marmee sounds much more like a relatable and real mother in this book. Thanks for another great review!

  • I read the first few pages of this one but then put it aside for something else. I would like to read it soon.

  • I’ve long been interested in reading this one, and it lives on my TBR as a matter of fact, but I haven’t been able to finish Little Women! Slander, I know. But I haven’t.

    Thanks for a great review. This provides an extra push!

  • kathy

    Jen, really enjoyed your review. I read this last year and liked it a lot (my review here -http://bookdiary2010.blogspot.com/2010/07/march-by-geraldine-brooks-january-2006.html)

    Always enjoy your blog!

  • I agree. I can’t believe who Jo ended up with. I haven’t forgiven her either and the movie did not help either. Especially when Laurie marries Amy. Yuck.

  • kay

    I’ve read Little Women more times than I could count and was always intrigued by the father, too. I’m curious as to how I would react to see these idealized characters presented differently? Only one way to know, right? :)

  • I think that last part about some parts of “March” being so much more like Bronson than Mr. March is exactly what made it so hard for me to come to like this book as I was reading it. But you’re so right, both parents were more realistic here than in Little Women. I can understand why Alcott may have idealized her mother in Little Women but the father was certainly a work of fiction.

  • I want to read this book, but I think I probably should read Little Women first. I hope it’s okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations.