A Tale of Two Marches-Civil War Historical Fiction Complements Informational Texts

April 17, 2012 — Leave a comment

A series of miscommunications left the eight members of the local Burnham Library Book Club wondering which book they should prepare to read for the next meeting. The month before, a decision was made to read a novel that shared the name of the next meeting; we would read a book titled  The March by E.L Doctorow for our March meeting date. How clever! Unfortunately, our plans went awry when the librarian posted the selection as March by Geraldine Brooks. Members arrived with copies of one or the other novel.

No matter. As it turned out, we could discuss both books easily, not only because of the similarity of each fictional story arc but because of the numerous historical references to people and the events in the Civil War.  What struck all members of the book club during the discussion was the amount of research that had gone into creating these works of historical fiction, since both contained a notable fidelity to events, customs, and manners of the Civil War era.

March-Geraldine Brooks

In March, Geraldine Brooks borrows her title character, Peter March, from Louisa May Alcott’s story Little Women. Her narrative is told from the alternating point of views of Marmee and the father of the March girls: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. In her explanation for his prolonged absence, the idealistic March enlists as a Union clergyman in 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War.

E. L. Doctorow’s The March is centered on real-life Union General William Tecumseh Sherman in his infamous “march to the sea”, as he burns Atlanta before pivoting north into the Carolinas. Multiple narrators are employed in this novel including a Union regimental surgeon, Colonel Sartorius; Emily Thompson, a daughter of a Southern judge; and Arly and Will, two soldiers who care little about loyalty and more about staying alive.  The scope of  this novel is epic as Sherman’s sixty thousand troops burn, pillage, and choke to death the final throes of the Civil War in 1864.

The similarity of major characters from each novel was uncanny: the mixed-race beautiful protagonist Pearl in The March and the strikingly attractive, educated slave Grace who captivates the title character in March. There were historical figures to people each novel: John Brown, the famous abolitionist; Henry David Thoreau; and Ralph Waldo Emerson make appearances in March. General Sherman, General Joseph E. Johnson, and Abraham Lincoln are present in The March. Both novels also extensively featured field hospitals as settings. March is a a Union chaplain who is wounded and ends up in a Civil War hospital; The March features a Union regimental surgeon, Colonel Sartorius  who curiously employs a number gruesome surgical procedures.

The novels reflected the tumult of a civil war, the hair-raising escapes from danger and the chaos and brutality that ensued from bitter and divided rivalries. Both novels highlighted the technological advancements that made each side more efficient killing machines, and Doctorow in particular noted the historical progress of mechanized warfare:

 “This in America was to be seen with one’s own eye’s. And as bloody and brutal were the contests of the Lancasters and York, they were hand to hand- battle-aves, pikes, maces. These chaps were industrial age killers: they had repeating rifles that could kill at a thousand yards, grape that could decimate an advancing line, cannon, field-pieces, munitions that could bring down entire cities. Their war was so impersonally murderous as to make quaint anything that had gone on before. (214)

Another element of comparison was the reflection in both novels on ancient wars that had preceded the Civil War. Brooks has her narrator, the cerebral Peter March, contemplate the historical continuum, from the Ancient World to the present, noting the how painful is the loss of loved one due to war:

“The waste of it. I sit here, and I look at him, and it is as if a hundred women sit beside me: the revolutionary farm wife, the English peasant woman, the Spartan mother-‘Come back with your shield or on it,’ she cried, because that was what she was expected to cry. And then she leaned across the broken body of her son and the words turned to dust in her throat.” (211)

In contrast, Doctorow uses a visiting English journalist in order to comment on how the echoes of  ancient conflicts are heard in the progression of battles he sees:

“Yet some of the ancient military culture endured. The brutal romance of war was still possible in the taking of spoils. Each town the army overran was a prize. In this village was an amazing store of wine, in that granary brimming to the rafters, a herd of beef here, an armory there, homes to loot, slaves to incorporate. There was something undeniably classic about it, for how else did the armies of Greece and Rome supply themselves? How else had Alexander’s soldiers made an empire? The invading army, when it camped, sat on the land as its owners, with all the elements of domesticity, including women, enlarging the purely martial function of their social order” (215)

The reasons for the Civil War are addressed more clearly in Brook’s tale. She incorporates the arguments offered by the real-life American Transcendentalist Branson Alcott in her creation of the  character of the naive March who is just beginning to doubt his involvement with the conflict he little understands:

“If war can ever be said to be just, then this war is so; it is action for a moral cause, with the most rigorous of intellectual underpinnings. And yet everywhere I turn, I see injustice done in the waging of it…”(65).

In contrast , Doctorow’s characterization of the West Point educated General Sherman suggests his weary recognition that while the physical act of war will run to its exhausted conclusion, the battlefield will move to another plane where the dispute will continue:

“And so the war had come down to words. It was fought now in terminology across a table. It was contested in sentences. Entrenchments and assaults, drum taps and bugle calls, marches, ambushes, burnings and pitched battles were transmogrified into nouns and verbs.  It is all turned very quiet, Sherman said to Johnson, who, not understanding, lifted his head to listen.

No cannonball or canister but has becomes the language here spoke, the words written down, Sherman thought. Language is war by other means” (348).

Ultimately, the members of book group determined that both books provided a fascinating blend of historical fact with fiction. As an educator, I was impressed about how much more effective both novels were in communicating the experiences of living through the Civil War from its beginning (1861) to its inevitable end concluding with Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. A textbook would have covered the information, but not provided the visceral quality a reader gains through a story….both novels succeeded in recreating history using a “his story” model. Both novels complement the study of the Civil War by blending each author’s thematic development and literary technique with historical fact. As a result, both novels will be placed on the 11th grade classroom shelves along with two other wonderful Civil War novels The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (Gettysburg) and Cold Mountain by Charle Frazier.

All these books appeal to the imagination in recreating the  particulars in the  time and places of the Civil War. As a bonus,  how serendipitous that despite the near duplication of titles, both novels were so similar in subject matter as to allow for a great discussion? How surprising that the story of two “Marches” would ultimately be so similar?

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