By Geraldine Brooks. Viking. 280 pp. $24.95
Early in Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women, the March girls receive a letter from their father. About this letter, Alcott writes, "little was said of the hardships endured, the dangers faced, or the homesickness conquered; it was a cheerful, hopeful letter full of lively descriptions." Mr. March spends much of Alcott's novel exiled from the story, serving as a chaplain for the Union during the Civil War.
Geraldine Brooks's new novel, March, reverses this. March begins with that same letter as it is written, or one very like it. But in this book the stress falls on the cost of saying little about hardship, danger and homesickness. The effort of writing such a letter underscores one of Brooks's consistent themes -- that the distance between the man at war and the women at home is unbridgeable. Increasingly the family must be protected from what the man has seen and done -- protected from who the man has become.
In one of his letters home, Mr. March, Brook's central character, chooses to focus on the natural world. "Spring here is not spring as we know it: the cool, wet promise of snowmelt and frozen ground yielding into mud. Here, a sudden heat falls out of the sky one day, and one breathes and moves as if deposited inside a kettle of soup." About another letter he says simply that though he promised to write, "I never promised I would write the truth." Today, when the reading of the names of fallen soldiers has been censured as an unpatriotic act, Brooks's decision to show both the details of war and the silence that grows up around those details is timely.
In her previous book, Year of Wonders, a story set during the years of the Black Plague, Geraldine Brooks proved herself to be a wonderful novelist. March has all the same virtues -- clarity of vision, fine, meticulous prose, the unexpected historical detail, a life-sized protagonist caught inside an unimaginably huge event. It shows the same seamless marriage of research and imagination.
When Alcott wrote Little Women, she created a confusion between the real Alcotts and the fictional Marches. Geraldine Brooks continues this fruitful confusion. Among the characters in Brooks's book are the historical (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Brown), the quasi-historical (the Marches), and the fully fictional (Grace Clement, a slave March knew as a young man and meets again during the war).
Mr. March is something like Louisa May Alcott's father, Bronson Alcott, in conviction, though with differences in experience and temperament. Accounts of Mr. Alcott suggest that he was highly principled and maybe a bit parasitic, depending on frequent financial support from his friends and family. In Louisa May Alcott's (and Brooks's) depiction of the character, the principled half is emphasized. Brooks's March is a well-meaning man, highly tuned to the frequencies of his own guilt and inadequacy. The war gives him ample occasion for expiation. It also provides endless opportunities for disastrous new mistakes.
Brooks's version of March's story is both harrowing and moving. She organizes her plot around four interludes. There is an episode from March's youth: At 19, as an impoverished Yankee peddler, he was a guest at a plantation in Virginia. Here he was briefly seduced by the leisurely life of books and philosophy that slaveholders could afford.
A second storyline focuses on the abolitionists in New England. March meets the activist Margaret Day (the Marmee of Little Women) as well as John Brown and the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau.
A third episode takes place in Union-occupied Mississippi, where an Illinois attorney has leased a cotton plantation. The plantation workers are ex-slaves, now entitled to wages, and under tenuous Union protection. As a chaplain in the army, March has proved too radical to suit either his superiors or the troops. He is sent here instead to organize a school for the newly freed and their children.
The issue of the treatment of ex-slaves under Union occupation is one of the less familiar stories of the Civil War, and Brooks is most effective throughout this section. She details the compromises made and the compromises refused while the sense of danger threatening the little community grows ever more palpable.
The final episode takes place in a Union hospital in Washington, D.C. For this part of the story, Brooks switches to Marmee's point of view, a move that brings us suddenly and nicely back to the world of Little Women. The Alcott book and characters have floated like ghosts all through March. That story of scorched gowns, amateur theatricals, pickled limes, balls and picnics and pianos provides a wonderfully effected, unstated but understood contrast to this story of the war. Brooks has taken a chance in evoking it so strongly at the end, but the chance pays off beautifully. March is an altogether successful book, casting a spell that lasts much longer than the reading of it.
Karen Joy Fowler is the author, most recently, of "The Jane Austen Book Club."