New Fiction

Finds and flops

When I learned the subject of this novel, I felt a twinge of envy. How inspired to fill out Mr. March, absent from nearly all of Little Women but, as a chaplain in the Civil War, probably up to something quite as interesting as the tribulations of his four daughters at home. Transcendentalist, abolitionist, ascetic, vegetarian (nearly, in fact, a vegan), the idiosyncratic March—whom Brooks based on Louisa May Alcott's father, as Alcott based her "little women" on her sisters and herself—is that most admirable and exasperating type: an idealist who strives to practice what he preaches. Having managed to acquire, with no more than his will and his wits, a remarkable education and a respectable fortune (he gives the latter entirely away), March has good reason to believe that he can accomplish anything he sets his mind to. But of course he's disillusioned at almost every turn, by his fellows and by himself. Brooks, unfaltering in her use of elevated, lyrical, Victorian language, has him state the crux of his difficulties thus: "How often it is that an idea that seems bright bossed and gleaming in its clarity when examined in a church, or argued over with a friend in a frosty garden, becomes clouded and murk-stained when dragged out into the field of actual endeavor." For such a man quandaries, the richest meat of any novel, abound: he wants to be honest with his wife, yet he cannot bear to disillusion her about the war or about himself; he wants to save lives, but he can't bring himself to take one to do so; he believes the war's cause is just, yet its conduct is anything but.

In her first historical novel, Year of Wonders, Brooks fell into the common trap of making a character sympathetic by giving her anachronistic attitudes. The protagonist in that novel, though winning, is so tolerant and enlightened that she's unconvincing as a very young, uneducated seventeenth-century woman. (Similarly, slaves and ex-slaves in this novel, being almost without exception wise and heroic, are too good to be true.) But in March, Brooks dares to create a man of his times, who believes that curbing his wife is among his proper duties as a husband. She also allows him to be as self-righteous as might be expected of someone with his fervent, high-minded convictions. I recall thinking, even as a child, that although Meg praises her father for going to war when he didn't have to, the choice was rather self-indulgent—and Brooks seems to be of the same opinion. Nevertheless, the naive earnestness and ready affection with which Brooks endows him, the high standards he sets for himself, and his remarkable willingness to admit mistakes make him wonderfully likable, even when he is egregiously in the wrong. The same cannot be said for his wife, who is almost always in the right but not nearly as endearing. In an afterword Brooks writes that her mother cautioned her about Marmee: "Nobody in real life is such a goody-goody." Brooks skillfully preserves Alcott's Marmee but renders her human by giving her an ungovernable temper like Jo's (for which I would like her better if it weren't so consistently in the service of her unimpeachable convictions) and a habit of silent suffering and secret complaint. Although I readily sympathize with her self-pity (she, after all, must manage all the difficult consequences of her husband's impractical ideals), sadly, I cannot love her for it.

Brooks's narrative is remarkably tight. Whereas much literary fiction wallows in digression, here every scrap of information propels the story forward. Her references to Little Women will evoke for quantities of her readers a beloved companion of girlhood. What remains, however, long after the last page has been turned, is the vibrant elucidation of the idea at the heart of this novel—that even the loftiest of human undertakings are inherently "clouded" and "murk-stained"—and, even more vividly, the lofty and murk-stained March.