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Parnassus Book Reviews

"The March" by E. L. Doctorow
Book Review by Mary Guss


April 12, 2007

Ketchikan, Alaska - I have heard it said that two of the three most written-about events on earth are the sinking of the Titanic and the American Civil War. The March is a novel about the latter, fictional, but weaving in characters who lived and died during that time. It is a very linear novel -- the progress of the march is linear, the ragged lines of people are linear -- but there is periodically a bulge in the line where events or people are expanded. Those bulges are the most satisfying parts of the novel, balancing somewhat the frustration of losing people out of the line, never to see them agarin or to know what ultimately happens to them.

jpg The March

The march referenced in the title is William Tecumseh Sherman's march across Georgia to the sea, then northward through the Carolina's, in the company of thousands of his Union soldiers. He is obviously one of the main nonfiction characters in the book. Depending on which other character is speaking of him, Sherman is either heaped with praise or villified:

He burns where he has ridden to lunch, he fires the city in whose clubs he once gave toasts, oh yes, someone of the educated class, or so we thought, though I was never impressed! No, I was never impressed; he was too spidery, too weak in his conversation, aand badly composed in his dress, careless of his appearance, but for all that I thought quite civilized in having so little gift to dissemble or pretend what he did not feel. And what a bitter gall in my throat for what I believed was a domesticated man with a clear love for wife and children, who is no more than a savage with not a drop of mercy in his cold heart.

(And how very Southern is that damning of Sherman?). He is, however, a rich and multi-layered character, grabing the reader's interest whenever he appears along the march. In fact, Doctorow makes one wish there were time to sit down with him over a leisurely lunch and learn all there is to know about him. Doctorow definitely thinks him a fascinating study. But he is claearly very human and beset with a host of human problems.

Not the least of those is what to do with the huge numbers of freed blacks who join his troops on their march. Just the logistics of feeding such large numbers on a daily basis is challenge enough. The bigger and unresolved challenge is where are they all to go and what are they all to do at the end of the war. Freedom alone is hardly an unmixed blessing to all those former slaves, who have to find new ways to make their own way in the world. This is not the history of your sixth-grade history book where all the slaves were freed and naturally thereafter all was well.

As they wrestle with their challenges, Doctorow introduces the most compelling of his fictional characters in this book. Watch as they grow into their own humanity in the face of the cold inhumanity of the war, as they adapt and grow through times that could scarcely be more difficult or narrowing, and see them reach out and connect with the most unexpected people.

The March snags the reader and brings them irresistibly along in its path, through moments of high and low humor, casual and not-so-casual bloodshed, love, hate, hope and horror. It is storytelling at its best.


Editor's Note:

Purchase this book locally at Parnassus Books located at 5 Creek Street Upstairs - Ketchikan, Alaska.

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