Another novel found by chance. I was immediately attracted to this novel when I noticed that the author takes the father-character, March, (who leaves his family to aid the Union cause against slavery) of Louisa M Alcott's, "Little Women". That's an interesting technique, especially if you want to talk about historical events, in this case the American Civil War. It reminded me of Jean Rhys's incredible novel "Wide Sargasso Sea", where she takes Charlotte Brontë's intertext (Jane Eyre).
Geraldine Brooks, who won the Pulitzer with this book, turned to the journals and letters of Bronson Alcott, Louisa May's father, a friend and confidant of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. In Brooks’s telling, March emerges as an idealistic chaplain in the little known backwaters of a war that will test his faith in himself and in the Union cause as he learns that his side, too, is capable of acts of barbarism and racism.
Brooks talks about March: "In the early 1990s I went to live in a small village in rural Virginia. For someone raised in Sydney, it was strange to suddenly live in a place where the scars of a war endured all around me. There were bullet holes in the bricks of the local church where a Civil War skirmish had taken place; a Union soldier’s belt buckle was unearthed in our backyard.Thinking about the young man who had worn that buckle was the beginning, in my mind, of March. The village is Quaker, which meant those who lived there were pacifists, but they also were abolitionists, who hated slavery. So the war brought huge issues of conscience for individuals who had to decide whether to sacrifice their non-violent principles to fight for what many saw as a just cause. I began to imagine an idealist adrift in the Civil War, and that reminded me of Little Women, and the absent father ‘far away, where the fighting was’. This isn’t a book about war, but about the strength of ideas that drive people to extreme action. I am gripped by the stories of individuals from that generation Oliver Wendell Holmes described so eloquently when he said, ‘In our youth our hearts were touched with fire’.’ Sometimes, when I stand in the field about the village and the mists rise from the creek, I feel like a time traveller, born back by the spirits of all those vivid, missing boys. "