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How Brooks' Novel MARCH Uses Little Women as a Springboard to a Pulitzer

Geraldine Brooks' spin-off

Photo of Civil War Chaplain, Robert Bunting, Texas 8th  Calvary
Civil War Chaplain, Robert Bunting. Photo: Presbyterian Heritage Center

Ongoing literary quest

One of my ongoing literary quests is to read Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction novels, both past and present. By doing so, I'll immerse myself in great writing and figure out what is considered as distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.”

(If you want to know what the past Pulitzer-Prize Fiction novels were and how many you've read, here's a chart for you.)

infographic of Pulitzer-Prize fiction winners since 2000
Infographic of Pulitzer Fiction winners since 2000. Melissa Gouty /

After reading Geraldine Brooks' novel Horse, and then absorbing her mesmerizing The Secret Chord, about the life of the Biblical King David, I decided I must read March, Brooks' 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner which spun off the classic Little Women.

The Lure of Little Women

Little Women was published in 1868 by a young woman author, Louisa May Alcott. Since that time, it has NEVER been out of print. The New Yorker reports that it has more than 100 editions, has been translated into more than fifty languages, and that even though it was pirated often in the early days and now is in the public domain, more than TEN MILLION copies have been sold.

Luckily, Alcott received a royalty on the novel, so her work did help her family out of the poverty that their idealist, philosopher father, Bronson Alcott, had thrown them into.

I was an avid reader from childhood. What little girl who reads wasn't exposed to Louisa May Alcott's Little Women? I remember reading it several times, weeping when Beth died. I felt a deep connection to Jo, a writer who scribbled plays and stories, brandishing her words as weapons, even though I didn't believe myself to be as strong as she was. I mourned because I was not pretty like Amy. (I didn't identify as much with Meg because I was not the oldest sister of the Johnson girls, and Meg was for my big sister, Melanie, to identify with!)

Still, I lived in a household of sisters, in a Christian home where we understood the importance of Marmie's kindness and generosity to others. I was a good student who got the basics of the Civil War and its impact on America, so the fact that the March girls' father was serving as a chaplain on the Union side made sense.

Reading March would surely be an enjoyable dive into the nostalgia of Little Women, right?

Not really!

Gearldine Brooks' novel March is a long way away from Little Women

Geraldine Brooks' novel, March, published in 2005, won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2006.

While I expected the novel to transport me back to my childhood and hours spent with the four March girls, I was instead transported into the story of a man, tortured with guilt of the past, the present, and his inability to effect change for the future. March is not a warm-hearted, fuzzy story about the father of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy; it's a heart-wrenching novel about the worries and failures of a father who is noble, kind-hearted, and well-intended, but inept.

March is what I would call a "quiet book." It has one desperate scene of action where March is serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. He and another soldier have to cross a creek to evade an attack. In the process, the other man drowns, despite March's efforts, leaving March morose and guilt-stricken.

Other than that one action scene, the tension in the novel results from all the psychological conflicts of a world where grand ideas rub raw against the harsher realities of life.

The many conflicts in March

First, March is tortured by the question of whether to enlist in the Civil War or stay home with his family. As an older man and father of four, he could have deferred, but his virtue and his belief in the equality of all men drives his decision to enlist, a decision that leaves his family without the comfort of his presence, even though it doesn't change their already frugal existence.

Second, March is conflicted about his past. We learn his story as we watch him years before his life in Little Woman visiting small towns as a peddler, selling dry goods and trinkets, often bartering for books instead of money. Along the way, he ends up on an estate, hired as a teacher for the children of the owner. It's here that he meets and falls for Grace, a literate slave woman. March's idealism prompts him to teach some of the slave children how to read and write. It's a decision that - regardless of its intent - causes great harm.

Grace shows up again years later in the story, a nurse on the estate treating wounded Civil War soldiers. It's here that March re-encounters his old feelings for this black woman he was attracted to in his youth, conflicted because she's still serving the "master" of the house.

A psyche scarred by the trauma of the Civil War

March may have enlisted as a noncombatant chaplain, but he was immersed in his own, very real battles.

He was emotionally scarred by seeing the devastation of the war. The horrible physical injuries, the anguish of the dying, and the inability to save the world haunt March.

As a chaplain, he struggles to find the right words to calm and comfort the soldiers around them. He knows he must minister to men of all denominations, an overwhelming job that leaves him asking deep theological questions.

Even though March fights for the North and the eradication of slavery, he sees firsthand that racial biases and cruelty aren't suddenly erased by the struggle. Disillusionment strikes and March's worldview is forever changed.

A year after March enlists he says, “One day I hope to go back. To my wife, to my girls, but also to the man of moral certainty that I was . . . that innocent man, who knew with such clear confidence exactly what it was that he was meant to do.” 

The integration of Marmee

Because the story of Little Women brings their father home, Geraldine Brooks uses Marmee as the impetus for change in the second half of the novel. Marmee, the one character from Little Women that we get to meet again, introduces even more guilt and trauma. When Marmee arrives at the hospital to take care of her invalid husband, she meets Grace who has spent countless hours nursing March.

Here, Marmee begins to uncover the story of Grace and March after learning of Grace's unwavering attention to her husband. (How would any of us feel if a secret, but cherished girlfriend of the past is the one who saves the life of our husband?)

What results is another conflict, this time within the marriage. Marmee brings home her invalid, changed husband with the knowledge that he had a past she didn't know about.

Springboard to the Pulitzer

Geraldine Brooks' novel, MARCH, is not a light-hearted spin-off about the loving father of the four daughters we all know so well. We get brief nods to Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy in the letters that March writes to them, but we won't smile about their girlish antics or feel nostalgic about their playtime.

Instead of being about "Little Women," March delves into the impact of the Civil War on families and marriages; how men - if they survived - were forever altered. Especially men like the idealistic March.

Pulitzer-Prize-winning material for sure.

A classic "girls'" novel may have served as a springboard for a deep, philosophical look at a character with a great mind and good heart, but Little Women is NOT the focus of the novel, March.

Sue Monk Kidd, the author of The Book of Longings, says this about March:

"filled with the ache of love and marriage and the power of war upon the mind and the heart of one unforgettable mind..."

Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks did extensive research in the journals of Bronson Alcott, Louisa May's father, and modeled the character of March on him.

One of the things I love about Brooks' books is the feel of authenticity. Her background is in journalism. Brooks grew up in Australia and was awarded a journalism scholarship to Columbia University in New York where she earned her Master's Degree and a job as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. She and her husband, Tony Horowitz, another author and journalist, won awards from the Overseas Press Club for the best reporting on the Gulf War, as well as an award for excellence for a series titled, "War and Peace."

Since the publication of her first book, The Year of Wonders, Brooks has been an international bestseller. Her website rolls her many literary accomplishments into one paragraph:

"She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2006 for her novel March. Her novels People of the Book, Caleb’s Crossing and The Secret Chord all were New York Times Bestsellers. Her first novel, Year of Wonders is an an international bestseller, translated into more than 25 languages and currently optioned for a limited series by Olivia Coleman’s production company. She is also the author of the nonfiction works Nine Parts of Desire, Foreign Correspondence and The Idea of Home.

Surely, it is Brooks' experience in the world of war-time reporting, her ability to do investigative research, the writer's eye for a story, and the curiosity of an intrepid traveler's mind that makes her books come alive.

All of hers are now on my reading list.


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