March, by Geraldine Brooks

Thinking about the Transcendentalists led me to this book, though it’s mostly set in the South during the Civil War. The story follows Mr. March, the absent father in Little Women.

I dislike novels with real people for characters or even characters from other books, like the spate of modern novels with Sherlock Holmes as a main character. It seems like an invasion of privacy. Here, Mr. March is so peripheral a character to Alcott’s books that it didn’t bother me, although the cameos of John Brown, Thoreau and Emerson did.

Brooks conjures up detailed portraits of daily life. Whether set in an army camp, a plantation or a hospital in Washington, the scenes are richly imagined. I wished some of the secondary characters were portrayed with similar depth, but since we were seeing them through Mr. March’s innocent eyes, their similarity to stock characters of 19th century fiction made sense.

What interested me the most was the controversy around his being in the army in the first place. Making choices that I know will change my life has always been hard for me. Whether I invest a lot of thought into weighing pros and cons or just decide on a whim, my choices never turn out the way I think they will. I don’t want to allow such turning points to drift by without a real decision, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Stoppard’s play, but also realise that sometimes I myself am not even aware of the reasons for my choices.

I would like to believe that the choices by which we create our lives are guided by our most fundamental principles, but that doesn’t seem to happen very often. Mr. March trots out the right reasons for joining the army but freely acknowledges the extent to which he was simply carried away by the moment. I most hate making choices where others have to suffer the consequences. Knowing what kinds of hardships his family would face while he was gone, I was surprised that he didn’t even consider the effect on them of his decision to go off to war.

What is the best use of a life, in wartime or in peace? I have not picked up a gun, but I know the seductive desire to hand yourself over to be a tool for some greater purpose. How does one live a good life? And how do we interpret “good”, anyway? It’s easy to measure success by achievements; more difficult to measure it by the quality of the attempts. These are the questions that keep me reading.

Upstream: A Voyage on the Connecticut River, by Ben Bachman

Ben Bachman has written an account of his journey in stages up the Connecticut River from Saybrook, Connecticut, to Pittsburg, New Hampshire. It’s creative nonfiction—true stories written using the techniques of fiction—and Bachman managed to slip in information about history, geology, and modern-day politics of the places he passed without disrupting the flow of the story. Traveling mostly by canoe but occasionally on foot, Bachman observed the moods of the river and its inhabitants, human and otherwise.

He described the river as part of the hydrologic cycle: “not so much a discrete entity as it is part of a much larger global system, not so much a thing as a process.” Absorbed by his descriptions of wind-ruffled water, I learned that streams minimize energy loss by meandering and that there is a standard sequence for riffles: five to seven times the width of the channel.

The river encompasses unimaginable history. I was entranced with his discovery of fossilized Triassic ripples and even dinosaur tracks 100 million years old, and riveted by his descriptions of the industry and politics behind the locks and old stone mills.

Most of all, though, I loved the way he brought New England, especially Massachusetts, alive for me. This is the time of year I most miss being in Massachusetts: October, when the trees are turning and the air is clear. Bachman wrote of a winter afternoon, “The air had that superb, absolutely dust-free clarity that . . . makes it seem as though you are seeing true colors for the first time.”

It was reading Emerson and Thoreau that made me move to Massachusetts in the first place. I wanted to walk their paths and discover the richness of each moment of life that they described. “Every hour and season yields its tribute of delight,” Emerson wrote. Truly the New England woods were a joy to me, far away from the smothering vines and tangled underbrush of the woods back home in the south. In Massachusetts I found not only a sense of the past but also the place where we as Americans became ourselves. De Tocqueville had to coin the word ‘individualism' to describe Americans. (Yes, I’m well aware that America is more than the U.S., stretching as it does from Nunavik to Tierra Del Fuego. We need a new word.)

Emerson wrote of the need for public duty to balance that individualism, weighing solitude and society. Thoreau wrote about our life in nature, away from the prison of a house. Bachman’s book speaks to both. The railroad yards of East Deerfield and Holyoke’s wooden three-deckers find their place in these pages alongside the cliffs and clouds, alewives and shad, eagles and mergansers. And always the river, whether tumbling down falls or spreading into pools. Dammed, diverted, exploited or ignored, the Connecticut River cuts through my beloved New England. Bachman’s book carried me up that river, revealing unsuspected delights and diversions.