15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
When the huge Union Army of General William Tecumseh Sherman burned its way from Atlanta to the Carolinas in 1864 - 1865, it was accompanied by a motley group of freed slaves, entrepreneurs, the dispossessed wives and children of landowners, and even a few turncoats, all of whom saw this army as their protection from the hostile unknown. E. L. Doctorow, in his absorbing novel about this march, focuses on the marchers themselves--their varied interests, conflicts, fears, and goals--creating a powerful and panoramic vision of how civilians, as well as soldiers, responded to the devastation of this terrible war.
Through a series of dramatic vignettes, Doctorow reveals the characters' family lives and stimulates reader interest. Mattie Jameson, the wife of a cruel slaveowner, has closed her eyes to the horrors of slavery, but when her estate is burned, her husband killed, and her 14- and 15-year-old sons conscripted to fight for the Confederacy, she has nowhere else to go. Pearl, whom Mattie describes as "that horrible child," is the mulatto child of her husband John Jameson and one of his slaves, and Pearl, too, becomes a marcher, disguised at a drummer boy.
Emily Thompson, the elegant daughter of a Georgia Supreme Court Justice, helps Dr. Wrede Sartorius, a Union regimental surgeon, renowned "for removing a leg in twelve seconds [without anesthesia]. An arm took only nine." Two turncoats, the devious Arly and the naïve Will, serve as the primary comic relief, opportunistically trading uniforms to suit their circumstances.
Real people mix with fictional characters, giving life to the narrative and a sense of immediacy to the action. General Sherman--"Uncle Billy," to the troops--is the unifying element of the novel, and he comes to life, his own family suffering as much personal hardship as the families he meets on the march. Cameos of Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln enhance the conclusion of the novel, and even Coalhouse Walker makes an appearance. The cast of characters is fluid, with some characters disappearing during the narrative, as they would in reality. Doctorow's eye for detail and ability to convey sense impressions--a severed leg so heavy it has to be carried by two people, or a soldier catching an enemy on his bayonet and being unable to shake it free--create both an atmosphere and the harsh realities of war.
Focusing on the march itself, Doctorow explores broad themes--the human costs of this war and its aftermath throughout the South: the thousands of displaced people, the loss of traditional ways of life, the economic disasters, the cultural shocks, the lack of opportunities for freed slaves, and their need to be taught how to be free. Showing the terrible universality of war, Gen. Sherman notes, "our civil war..is but a war after a war, a war before a war." n Mary Whipple
104 of 130 people found the following review helpful
Debbie Lee Wesselmann
- Published on Amazon.com
Throughout his literary career, E. L. Doctorow has perfected the art of the literary historical novel, a genre that invents as much as it recreates. In The March, he leaves his beloved setting of New York (Ragtime, The Waterworks, World's Fair, City of God) for the South during the end of the Civil War. General Sherman has begun his often ruthless march through the South, burning towns and cities. An ever-growing group of freed slaves who have nowhere to go follow the army with the hope they will find, somehow, a better life. In the midst of this, Doctorow creates his characters, both real and imagined: Pearl, a freed and fiercely independent slave who looks more white than black; Arly, a former soldier who takes the uniform or identity of whomever is most advantageous to him at the moment; Wrede Sartorius, a Union field surgeon whose interest in the war is mostly scientific; Emily Thompson, a Southern belle who switches sides after her father's death to attend to the sick and wounded; General Sherman himself, whom Doctorow portrays as an aloof leader who turns away from the atrocities committed by his men because he knows he cannot stop them and have them remain loyal to the Union; and many others, some of whom act as protagonists for a single passage. Even Coalhouse Walker, also a character in Ragtime, appears in a few scenes that illuminate his background.
The novel's strength is also its greatest weakness. Doctorow's technique of using numerous points-of-view gives a sweeping picture of all sides of the war, from foot soldier to general to war correspondent to grieving mother, but it also dilutes the emotional impact of the events he describes. Some characters, such as Emily Thompson, occupy a large segment of the novel, only to be dispensed with halfway through. The only character who remains from start to finish is Pearl, whose vibrancy drives the beginning of the novel; however, even in Pearl's case, she ends up as more symbolic than flesh-and-blood, not because of any flaw in Doctorow's treatment but because he does not get deep enough into who she is. The author's main concern seems to be not the people, but the Union army itself, which he describes as "a nonhuman form of life . . . (that) consumes everything in its path." In this, Doctorow succeeds admirably since, by the end of Sherman's march, the distinction between sides falls away so that those consumed by it (the Confederate soldiers) become a part of the camp, with gray and blue uniforms eating together, thus symbolizing the reestablishment of a single country. Notably, the freed slaves remain as a separate "army" encamped alongside the white one.
Surprisingly, Doctorow often relies on passive language, which contributes to the impersonal feel of the narrative, although certain memorable images linger: Emily trapped in a single room with her dying father while the Union soldiers take over her house; Arly propping up his dead comrade, as though he were alive, for a photograph; the final act of a man living with a metal spike through his head; the Union generals and officers assembling for a photograph to document their meeting. When Doctorow focuses on the individual details of a scene, his writing illustrates the humanity of inhumanity, and the effect is powerful.
As a literary overview of the last days of the Civil War, The March is an exceptional novel that expertly melds history with fiction. Its flaws, while significant, don't lessen the importance of this ambitious work. Although not Doctorow's best novel, The March should be read by those with a strong interest in contemporary literature.