222 of 246 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Mark Twain often blamed, not without some reason, the onset of the U.S. Civil War on the writings of Sir Walter Scott. Scott's romantic view (Twain called them Scott's enchantments) of war, chivalry, and honor colored southern culture to such an extent that war became inevitable. Any lingering romantic notions about war were put to rest by General William Tecumseh Sherman's march through the south. Sherman's view of war was simple: war is brutal and it must be fought with brutality and overwhelming strength if victory is to be achieved. Sherman's often brutal march through the south forms the centerpiece of E.L. Doctorow's "The March". Both havoc and the `dogs of war' form the underlying background against which the novel's plot plays itself out.
In a recent discussion about "The March" Doctorow stated that he intended to give the book a "Russian feel". In that he has succeeded. The broad canvas painted by Doctorow, a multitude of characters (both real and fictional) who meet, interact, and depart while war is waged all around them does contain stark similarities to Leo Tolstoy, Boris Pasternak, and Vasily Grossman. Doctorow's unique voice and style allows him to impart this "Russian" flavor to a novel about the Civil War without it seeming imitative or derivative. The March is an original and entertaining piece of work.
There are a host of characters in the book. Some, like Sherman, appears throughout. Others, who shall remain nameless, make an impact on the reader and advance the story but suffer untimely fates. As with any war untimely deaths are the rule rather than the exception. The other major characters include: Pearl, a newly freed slave who father was her former plantation master; Colonel Wrede Sartorius, a German born army surgeon; Arly and Will, two Confederate soldiers whose appearance and reappearance in Union and Confederate uniforms is both amusing and ultimately suspenseful; Stephen Walsh, a Union soldier who finds himself spending a lot of time with Pearl; and Emily Thompson, a southern woman who ends up as a nurse to Dr. Sartorious.
Doctorow devotees will recognize Dr. Sartorious as the evil Dr. Sartorius featured in Waterworks. They will also recognize the freed slave Coalhouse Walker as the father of jazz pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. from Ragtime. These `coincidences' are not central to the plot but does engage the reader with background information about the characters not readily apparent from the reading.
The book progresses along with Sherman's march. We see southern cities burnt down at the least sign of resistance and we see captured Union soldiers executed without cause. War is indeed hell and the havoc of war is omnipresent. Doctorow is unstinting of his portraits of all his characters be they northern or southern. There is no such thing as a romantic hero; there is simply brutality in the name of survival and accommodation to the dogs of war barking at everyone's feet.
One noticeable element of The March is the easy transformation of the characters into different versions of themselves. Will and Arly's rapid changes are the most evident of them. So too is Pearl's transformation from a timid slave girl into a Union drummer boy and then a nurse. All around the novel such changes abound. The war, for all its brutality, provides many of the characters in the novel with the freedom to change themselves and society's perception of them. The boxes to which we are consigned are put aside and we are then free to create our own version of ourselves free from a peacetime society's constraints.
The novel ends as the war ends. The end of the novel is as ambiguous as the end of the war itself. There is certain optimism that freedom (whether from slavery or society's pigeonholing) gained will not be lost once the fog of war lifts. The reader may know better than the characters how unfounded that optimism was but the characters do not and their naïve hopes makes them all the more poignant.
The March is a fine book.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
The March dramatizes Sherman's terrific coup de grace on the Confederacy. The novel weaves together many disparate characters, including a white-skinned slave, an Irish enlisted man, 2 rebel turncoats, a Union doctor, dispossessed plantation owners, a British journalist, a photographer and his protégée, several Union Generals [including Sherman], and a few soldiers who meet their ends along the way.
The book has some outstanding passages about the march itself, how it can be seen as a living organism unto itself, or even a roving civilization. Also, Doctorow has written fine, balanced dialogue; this seems to me an extremely difficult task, but somehow Doctorow has his characters sound exactly right -- not too antiquated or too modern. Add to this the author's obvious assimilation of the historical milieu and you've got the raw materials of a great novel. But, wait ... not quite.
Perhaps the book's greatest shortcoming was intended to be its greatest strength: the vast array of characters. Although we can see why they are there [to present unique perspectives to better understand the great events], they are not given enough space to fully, deeply flourish. Another problem is that the narrator's omnipotence bleeds into the characters, making them at times seem less characters and more representations of historical forces. Thus the reason for writing a novel, instead of a history, is lost. It seems to me that fiction should allow us complete entry into another time and place, with all the prejudices and limitations of that experience. This novel never does that. Instead the reader feels "taught" the material, and is always aware of the distance between when the book is written and the events taking place within it. The reader never gets inside this world, never sustains a personal experiences the events of war. If a few of the principle characters were given more space, more depth, more nuance, perhaps this problem would be ameliorated.
However, do not despair. If you are interested in the Civil War, or American history, then this book is definitely worth reading. EL knows his material well, and as a writer of prose is one of the best. Structurally, this reviewer simply feels different choices might have led to a truly superior novel, instead of a merely decent one.
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
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
A sprawling epic of Sherman's march through the South, Doctorow's story once again illustrates why the effects of the Civil War endure in our country to this day. In part because it was fought on our own soil, in part because the North and South were such totally different cultures, and of course because the issue of race remains a burning one even today, the Civil War continues to fascinate. Reading Doctorow's story, it's hard to imagine that Sherman's march covered a mere 60 miles--its effects were so brutal and deadly. The Civil War occurred at a time when the weapons of modern warfare had emerged--repeating rifles, cannon and shells decimated thousands, but medicine was in the dark ages. Much of the story takes place just behind the lines in the medical units, where the distant Wrede Sartorious operates with cold-blooded efficiency, while an ever-changing cast of assistants and nurses make futile efforts to staunch the blood and ease the pain.
Doctorow's characters shift in and out of the story as Sherman's juggernaut makes its way through the countryside. Freed slaves, camp followers and whites whose homes have been destroyed by the army attach themselves to the rear of the army expecting to be fed and protected because they have no place else to go. Black men who still need the cover of a white "boss," black women passing for white, lost children, sheltered white women cut loose from their protective coccoons all tag along, until one wonders how Sherman could move at all.
Like all war stories, one becomes hardened to the blood and gore of it all, and yet Doctorow won't let us forget. Late in the book, the half-mad Mattie finds her dead son, and all stop as "the thin thread of a howl, a cry that stopped the chorus of the moans of the wounded, the bustle of the nurses" was heard throughout the camp. "Even Wrede Sartorious . . .looked up from his bloody labors, and when he turned back to them his own science suddenly seemed futile given the monumentality of human disaster."
Doctorow's style is riveting, his rendition of accents flawless, the movement of the plot inexorable. I highly recommend this novel--you won't be able to put it down.
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.