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.

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