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'March' Draws on 19th Century Classic to Tell New Civil War Era Story


As a news correspondent, Geraldine Brooks covered war zones in Bosnia, Somalia and the Middle East. Now the Australian born writer has won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for a novel about America's Civil War, called March.

The author of fiction and non-fiction, Brooks lives in rural Virginia, not far from Civil War sites she describes in her novel. She took the inspiration for March from another book set during the Civil War era, Louisa May Alcott's 19th century classic Little Women. That book tells the story of the four March sisters, whose father is away serving as a chaplain with Northern troops. Mr. March is mostly absent from Little Women, but he becomes the central character in March, which explores how the idealism he takes to war clashes with the cruelty and violence he witnesses as it unfolds.

Brooks says her story grew out of her trips to Civil War battlefields with her American husband Tony Horwitz, who has also written about the conflict and its legacy. "It was on one of those trips that we started talking about what an inspiration the Civil War had been to so many writers. He mentioned Louisa May Alcott, and until he said that it had never really occurred to me that this beloved classic of my Sydney girlhood was actually one of the very first novels in America to deal with the Civil War, albeit glancingly, and albeit from the home front. But that made me start to think about Mr. March and the whole business of idealists who go to war -- he was an idealistic Abolitionist chaplain -- and what kind of war he might have had."

To create her fictitious Mr. March, Geraldine Brooks followed the example set by Louisa May Alcott in Little Women. "She had based the sisters on her own sisters," the author explains, and she was Jo, the rebellious would-be writer, and the mother is very recognizably based on Abigail Alcott. So I decided to see if there was anything I could use in the history of her real father, Bronson Alcott. And as soon as I opened his journals I started to fall madly in love with him, because he was really an outstanding figure. He was an ardent abolitionist, and the family sheltered slaves in their home in Concord as part of the Underground Railroad."

Bronson Alcott was also a radical educator, Brooks adds, with ideas far ahead of his time. "He gave the children of America recess, which my son is profoundly grateful for. He believed that children themselves had much to teach if you could only elicit their thoughts in the right way, which was so radical in the 1830s, when schooling was still very much concerned with breaking the will and subduing the spirit."

The author's interest in the Civil War was slow to develop, despite her marriage to Tony Horwitz, whose best selling book Confederates in the Attic explores America's undying fascination with the conflict. "My husband grew up in Washington, D.C.," she says, "and he was always passionately interested in the Civil War, so it took a long time for our interests on this subject to converge, I have to say. I was rather churlish earlier in our marriage when he wanted to keep driving me off to various battlefields. But gradually, as I learned more and began to read more about the individuals, and particularly the journals of these young idealists, the New Englanders who came to war specifically because of their abhorrence of slavery, and the crises of conscience that the war represented for young men like that, that was where I started to get really riveted."

As an Australian native, Geraldine Brooks says her own frame of reference for America's Civil War obsession is Gallipoli, the World War I battle in which so many young Australian soldiers were killed. "We still remember that with a passionate intensity in Australia. And I think it makes me be able to relate to the Southerners who still feel the defeats of the Civil War so keenly. But what we didn't have in Australia is the landscape marked by war. And that was what was very different for me when we came to live in a little village in Virginia, where the bricks of the local church have still got bullet scars from the skirmish that took place there. And when they were doing some work on the brick around the old kitchen well in our house that operated during the time of the Civil War, workmen actually dug up a Union soldier's belt buckle. So it's that close and personal."

Brooks says she also drew on what she witnessed as a war correspondent to write the novel. "My first experience of a battlefield was during the Iran-Iraq war, and that was a very antiquated kind of warfare, despite the modern weapons, because it was trench warfare, with human wave attacks, and these very young soldiers would just fling themselves into the field of fire. And it was exactly like Pickett's Charge in many ways, so I felt I had for better or worse a sense of what a battlefield like that was like."

Those battlefield scenes give March a sense of grim realism that is missing from Little Women. Geraldine Brooks acknowledges that changing times allowed her to explore subjects in franker detail than Louisa May Alcott was able to do. "And I was surprised to learn as I was researching this book that Louisa May, for all the instant and great success that Little Women enjoyed, she wasn't a big fan of her own book. She felt it was a book she had written to satisfy her publishers' demands rather than her own artistic requirements. So in that way I felt she wouldn't mind my adding these rather adult resonances to her sparkling children's tale, and darkening it a little bit."

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