A few months ago, before going on holiday to Australia, I decided to “prepare” for the trip in a bookish way – by reading books written by Aussie authors. That’s how I discovered Geraldine Brooks and her Pulitzer-awarded book “March”.
Let me begin by explaining why this book is special. You might already be familiar with the classic book “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott. Long story short, “Little Women” is about the 4 March sisters and their mother, Marmee. As the girls’ father is at war, he is an absent character of the story. Here comes Brooks’ brilliant idea: she imagined the story of the missing father, expanding the world created by Louisa May Alcott almost 140 years before.
Yes, “March” wants to fill in the gaps left by Louisa May Alcott. Even though “March” contains references to multiple events and ideas from “Little Women”, which helps to build the overall context, the two stories overlap only once:
“The rest of the time I have stayed well away from Louisa’s world and simply tried to add some darker adult resonances in the voids of her sparkling children’s tale” (Brooks)
In a nutshell, “March” tells the story of Mr. March, who serves in the Union Army during the Civil War. March changes a lot during the time he is gone, as he goes through life-changing experiences, facing difficult decisions and tough situations. Brooks herself explains what was the underlying question she wanted to answer:
“I was interested in what happens to idealists at war, people who go to war because of highly idealistic beliefs, but then find their ideals challenged by the very nature of war [..] Then I remembered the absent father in Alcott’s novel [..] It seemed to me he would be an excellent vehicle through which to explore this question.” (Brooks, 2012)
By telling the story of Mr. March, Brooks deals with powerful themes such as the impact of war on American families (including marriage), post-war trauma, guilt, but also the right to receive equal education for boys and girls of all races.
Going back to the inspiration source, there are two more interesting pieces of information I want to share with you. The first one is about Mr. March – just as the 4 March girls were inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s sisters, Mr. March was inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s father – Bronson Alcott. Fortunately, Bronson Alcott recorded his own life in 61 journals, plus his letters are also documented and compiled, helping Brooks get an in-depth view of his thoughts and language.
“For to know a man’s library is, in some measure, to know his mind” (Mr. March)
The second interesting piece of information regards Mrs. March. In the afterword, Geraldine Brooks thanks her mother for suggesting her to read “Little Women” and recommending to keep a degree of scepticism about its truth: “Nobody in real life is as goody-goody as Marmee“. Brooks took into consideration this witty observation when she builds the complementary story of “Little Women”, and portrayed Marmee as struggling to understand and help her husband, who changed so much after the war.
Needless to say, I warmly recommend reading “March”, especially if you enjoyed “Little Women”! The two books are very different in style and approach, but the fact that they depict different events and points of view of the same universe creates a beautiful reading experience 🙂
What do you think about the idea of writing a story that complements an already existing story written by someone else? Would you be interested in reading them both?
‘Till next time … happy reading!
PS: The edition I read has a nice P.S. section – 18 pages with information about the author (interviews, ideas, recommended books). I really liked it, hopefully more books will have this additional feature
PPS: I also learnt a new term: novelist’s license – when the writer is vague about something and leaves it out of the story. For example, Louisa May Alcott took a novelist’s license on Mr. March in her book “Little Women”