The March: A Novel Hardcover – Large Print, Sep 20 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas produced hundreds of thousands of deaths and untold collateral damage. In this powerful novel, Doctorow gets deep inside the pillage, cruelty and destruction—as well as the care and burgeoning love that sprung up in their wake. William Tecumseh Sherman ("Uncle Billy" to his troops) is depicted as a man of complex moods and varying abilities, whose need for glory sometimes obscures his military acumen. Most of the many characters are equally well-drawn and psychologically deep, but the two most engaging are Pearl, a plantation owner's despised daughter who is passing as a drummer boy, and Arly, a cocksure Reb soldier whose belief that God dictates the events in his life is combined with the cunning of a wily opportunist. Their lives provide irony, humor and strange coincidences. Though his lyrical prose sometimes shades into sentimentality when it strays from what people are feeling or saying, Doctorow's gift for getting into the heads of a remarkable variety of characters, famous or ordinary, make this a kind of grim Civil War Canterbury Tales. On reaching the novel's last pages, the reader feels wonder that this nation was ever able to heal after so brutal, and personal, a conflict.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
From School Library Journal
Adult/High School–A Civil War tale with much to engage teens. The title refers to a climactic event, General William Tecumseh Shermans March to the Sea. Using a nonlinear (but not especially challenging) structure that recalls his groundbreaking Ragtime, Doctorow narrates events through multiple Union and Confederate perspectives. A rich variety of individuals, both fictional and historical, populates a moving world of more than 60,000 troops accompanied by thousands of former slaves and assorted civilian refugees who follow Sherman on his ruthless progress through Georgia and the Carolinas. While many characters are essentially entertaining sketches, there are a few memorable standouts, particularly 15-year-old Pearl, a so-called white Negro fathered by her owner. Taking advantage of the chaos after war disrupts her tightly controlled existence, she flees her looted plantation home, disguises herself as a drummer boy, and joins the march, determined to reach freedom and create a life worth living. On the way, she experiences moments of violence, love, irony, and even humor in the midst of horror. Short cinematic episodes illuminate and interpret history with meticulous attention to period settings, from terrifying battlefields to desperate field hospitals to once-grand mansions, all described in lyrical language crafted by a skilled writer.–Starr E. Smith, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
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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.
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
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.
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.
Sherman is in the book, but he is one of a varied cast of characters portrayed, only a few of which are real. The characters highlighted include southern belle mothers, slaves freed by the Union's march through Georgia and S.C., two confederate soldiers who constantly switch sides while one step ahead of executioners, a doctor, several soldiers from both sides - well, you get it. Doctorow portrays the range of people affected by Sherman's march through enemy territory.
This novel shows the best, the worst and the "normal" people and their varied reactions to the havoc of war. It portrays wonderfully the confusion that the future of the new south caused to both whites and blacks. Throughout Civil War literature, this work is unique in its treatment of that time immediately after slaves were freed. Where did they go? What were there prospects? They did not know, nor did anyone else, and Doctorow brings this home to the reader.
He also shows Sherman's march through the eyes of the (primarily) women who lost their plantation homes to the devastation wrought by Sherman's armies. The pillaging/foraging of the Union soldiers sent these formerly well-off folks into a world of homelessness to which they had to adjust - somehow - or literally perish.
One of the most amazing qualities of this book is that every single primary character is portrayed sympathetically. This is true from Sherman, to the slaves, to the homeless plantation owners to the soldiers in the field on both sides. Even the Conferederate scoundrel freed from prison a day before his execution who switches sides and roles as convenient has a loveable quality about him.
There is one last quality to this book that brings the hammer of reality of war down hard on the reader. There is a complete randomness as to which characters live and and die. There is never a clue - just as in real war.
This is an historical novel in that it takes place during Sherman's march from the Atlantic into North Carolina. However, it is not the type of historical novel that recounts the events in a "you are there" fashion with accuracy as to marches, battles and the like. This novel is about the people who populate war zones, both combatants and civilians. It is about their actions, reactions and interactions.
Lastly, a note about the writing. I have enjoyed most of Doctorow's novels, but The March stands out as his best writing. There are passages that cried out to be reread for their wording, their message and passion.
This is a novel that will stay with the reader for a long time and should be kept for a long time. It is worth coming back to again.