by Geraldine Brooks
Published by Viking
288 pages, 2005
Buy it online
Mister Little Women
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
Whether you've read the novel or seen one of the many film adaptations, if you grew up in the English-speaking world, you've probably been exposed to Little Women, Louisa May Alcott's classic novel about four sisters growing up in New England during the American Civil War. The novel was semi-autobiographical, but only semi; the author was well and truly grown up by the time of the Civil War and even volunteered as a nurse for a time.
Mr. March, the absent father who is a chaplain with the Union army, was partly based on Louisa May Alcott's own father, Bronson Alcott. Bronson was a remarkable man who, after a youth as a poor farmer's son, traveled the South as a peddler, then became a teacher in order to try out his extremely radical theories of education. They didn't work, but he had the courage of his convictions. Those convictions included veganism and founding a utopian commune called Fruitlands, which flopped because the inhabitants didn't want even to kill the worms destroying their trees. March supported the Abolitionist rebel John Bronson financially and was involved with the Underground Railroad which helped slaves escape to Canada. His friends included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau.
Geraldine Brooks' novel, March, includes many of these real-life elements, deftly woven into the events of the original. The March family, for example, have become poor because of the money spent on Bronson's activities. March, the narrator of most of the book (we never find out his given name), starts off as a peddler in the South before marrying Marmee.
In Geraldine Brooks' novel, we find out what Mr. March was doing while Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy were working, playing, celebrating Christmas and falling in love back at home.
March opens with a battle in which the title character blames himself for not having been able to save a comrade, something that affects his life for the balance of the book. Like Bronson Alcott, he is a vegan and an idealist. He has gone to war to free the slaves, but finds that his comrades haven't. They think he is crazy and resent his interference in their "fun." Seconded to a plantation now under Union control, to teach the ex-slaves, he tries out his educational theories. Although he's successful with his students, both adults and children, there are other forces, Confederate and Union alike, working against him and them, as well as the young Northern civilian who has been trying hard to make a go of the place. We learn how he ended up hospitalized during that part of Little Women and how he actually feels when he returns home. The way Brooks imagines the conclusion is not quite as rosy as what readers will remember from Little Women.
The saintly Marmee is shown as a passionate young woman, the feisty sister of a preacher, a woman who is more than capable of keeping her family together while her husband is off playing the hero, though not always capable of keeping her temper under control. Oddly, Marmee is a diminutive of her name, Margaret, rather than, as I had always assumed, the girls' way of saying, "Mother" or "Mama." Interesting, but this element didn't make sense to me,because it's hard to imagine the respectful March girls calling their mother by her given name. I don't think it's anything to do with Bronson, whose wife's name was Abby.
In other ways, however, March does work well, both as a Civil War novel and a Little Women spinoff. It is only one of a large number of novels that have taken the universes of classic fiction as a starting point. That sounds easy, but when you're writing a story set in the worlds of Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Margaret Mitchell or H.G. Wells, you had better come up with a book that will convince readers it was worth doing.
March is an entertaining tale with some interesting original characters as well as some reinterpreted Alcott characters, but there are a few gruesome scenes. March is definitely not aimed at the children who are the intended audience of the original novel , but rather at the adults who remember it. | April 2005
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.