July 2, 2011

The March (#103)

The March by E.L. Doctorow

What I said then:

Dramatises a key moment in the U.S. Civil War.

What I say now:

Jesus, some of my 'then' descriptions are masterpieces of brevity, aren't they? 

My Dad is nuts about the American Civil War. When I was fourteen, he took me and my brother to the U.S. for a holiday, and amongst the sporting stops (I saw Michael Jordan play live --- it was awesome) he made us spend a few days in Atlanta. To me and Paul it seemed like Atlanta was the most boring city in the universe (they invented Coca-Cola, there's a big rock that's tiny compared to Uluru, and Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind is buried there ... and that's all they've got), but Dad ditched us and went scurrying about to all sorts of Civil-War-related sites and had a ball. I originally bought this about three years ago, thinking I'd check it out and, if it was any good, I could give it to Dad for Christmas or something. He can expect to see a The March shaped present under the tree this year. It was fantastic.

As the war was winding down and the North had definitively grasped the upperhand (partly by burning Atlanta to the ground, a conflagration of which I can heartily approve), General William Tecumseh Sherman invented the 'scorched earth' approach to warfare in order to bring the South to its knees. To that end he marched his army through Georgia and the Carolinas, living off what they could pillage and leaving ashes in their wake. The aim was to destroy the South's ability to make war by destroying every piece of infrastructure they had. Crops were looted, farms burnt down, railroads dismantled, and then the army moved on to do the same in the next town, and the next, and the next. Everywhere they went the marching armies gathered a train of refugees behind them; mainly freed slaves who were frightened to stay in the South once the army had passed by, but dispossessed Southern whites who had nowhere else to go were also compelled to tag along.

Doctorow's novel covers the march from the perspectives of a wide array of characters, including: Sherman himself, portrayed as an irascible genius; a brilliant and dispassionate military doctor with the rather bizarre name of Wrede Sartorius; Emily Thompson, the ruined Southern belle who falls in love with him; Pearl, a pale-skinned half-caste who belongs neither with the whites or the freed slaves; Wilma, Miss Thompson's former maid who must adapt to her new freedom and all the choices it brings; and Arly and Will, two devout soldiers who keep switching sides, depending on their circumstances. These are the major players, but one of the brilliant things about The March is the way that a bewildering variety of characters flit in and out, sometimes appearing only for a page or two and never being heard from again. What might be confusing is kept perfectly straightforward by the clarity of Doctorow's writing, and his ability to imbue depth in a character with a few deft strokes of his pen.

Speaking of the writing ... because Doctorow is considered one of the masters of contemporary American literature, I was kind of dreading reading this. I was worried he might work in that high-faluting, 'literary', 'poetic' type of writing that makes reading seem like wading through a sludgy swamp (*cough* Michael Cunningham *cough*). But actually Doctorow pulls off a feat of small genius with his prose: he manages to write in an old-fashioned way that neatly evokes the 19th Century milieu, while keeping the pace (and accessability) of a page-turner. Though he's dipping into a 'ye-olde' sort of a style, it's never anything but a breeze to read. Nice job, E.L.!

Because of the historical narratives that have grown up about successive waves of European migrants from the Pilgrims on down, Americans, in a general sort of a way, seem to conflate the journey of their (white) forefathers with a metaphysical journey towards 'freedom,' that nebulously defined value that lies at the core of their national identity. Freedom (and American-ness) are found by leaving the past behind and creating a new home for yourself. African-Americans, having made the journey west in chains, are a rather sour counterpoint to this ideal. In The March, Doctorow gives his negro characters an equivalent mythic 'journey' --- leaving behind bondage in the South for freedom on the march, and in the North, and in the future --- which integrates them into American society, to the betterment of the nation, and to the lives of the characters presented. It's an interesting attempt at evaluating the African-American experience with regard to the American experience as a whole, and while the novel ends in too neat a fashion for my liking, Doctorow doesn't shy from detailing the degrading aspects of the lives of his black characters, whether slave or free.

The book isn't without its little flaws. Pearl, so pale that she's mistaken for a white boy, ends up on Sherman's staff, and the narrative convolutions Doctorow has to undertake to get her where he wants her are a bit ham-fisted. Some characters we grow to love drop off the march to take their chances in the new South, and their disappearance from the novel lends the finale a mildly unsatisfying air. Overall, though, The March is a corker: a smart, serious book that is as readable as any pot-boiler, and has a heart as well as a brain.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
books to go: 102

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