Me, reading a grown up book! And a Pulitzer Prize winner, no less! What's up with that?
The Plot: It's 1861, and March is an Army Chaplain for the Union. He tells not only of his wartime experience, but also thinks back on different times in his life: as a wandering tinker in the South 20 years before, meeting his wife, raising his four daughters . . . .
The Good: Where others see literary fiction, I see Fanfiction. Retelling the story of Little Women from the POV of the mostly absent father: very cool! The definition of fanfiction I like to use is broad: "When authors write stories featuring characters from other stories, movies or TV shows in new situations or adventures."
Some would say that it's not fanfiction when the original work upon which it is based is out of copyright. I say, that just makes it fanfiction which the author can legally sell as a published work. To me, the basic element of fanfiction is falling for an existing story and wanting to delve deeper into that universe by creating original works that take place in that universe.
My point? Fanfiction writers get quite a bit of disrespect; most of it from those who have no idea what it is, or from those who don't understand the history of fanfiction. Two good articles to look at are : Too Good To Be True: 15o Years of Mary Sue by Pat Pflieger and Fan Fiction, Fandom and Fanfare: What's All The Fuss? by Meredith McCardle (PDF, Law Review Article.).
And about March: it kind of annoys me that if a someone wonders how the Harry Potter story would look like told from the point of view of someone other than Harry, they are looked down on; but when a "real" author does it with a work no longer copyright protected, they get prizes. Which isn't about the book, but rather, about reviewers and the like.
What I liked about March: as historical fiction, it's almost perfect. Brooks has done her research; no "it's fiction so I can make up whatever I want" to be found here. She researches her time, her place, and both the March and Alcott families. (Do I even have to tell my readers that the March family was based on Louisa May Alcott's family?) Most importantly, Brooks never has March or any other character be a modern person set down in the past. March, Marmee, and the others remain, at all times, people of their time period; progressive in some areas, even ahead of their time, perhaps, but never with a 21st century mindset. One thing that remains is snobbism and classism that most historical fiction books like to either ignore, or to have their characters realize and change.
There is also a wonderful Afterword where Brooks discusses the research she did and points out the facts that she tweaked in order to serve the purposes of the story.
What I didn't like: why the mystery about March's first name? Jo names Rob after his Grandpa, so why doesn't Brooks ever say that March is Robert March? (If she did, I missed it.) (I think Brooks was using the original first Little Women as the only canon text.)
March himself. Now, admittedly, I'm one of those who both admire Bronson Alcott's politics and educational theory but also dislike a man who lived off his daughters. And I did get angry at March for his actions (and non actions) after his family became poor: better not to work and to read books, and justify it by feeding his family less. (Who really needs three meals a day?)
But what made me want to not finish the book itself was that March was a Holly Martins. I love The Third Man and I like Holly in the movie, recognizing his faults and being a bit amused by them at times. But to have March be the Holly character over and over again; to repeatedly have March think he knows it all while knowing nothing, and to blunder ahead making situations worse, was just annoying, especially as he grew older. Realistic? Perhaps.
But I'd much rather spend 15 hours with a person I like and respect. Anyone who wants to know the "right" way to write a work of historical fiction should read this, and I'm glad I didn't let March himself stop me from reading it. But I had a hard time understanding just why the March daughters held their father in such high esteem.
Note: I waited until after I had written this to start seeing who else had discussed the fanfiction aspect of this book. See: Fanfic: force of nature; What is Fanfic.
Geraldine Brooks had an article in the Guardian, Brave New Worlds, about Bronson Alcott. While Brooks notes that Alcott's reputation was "unfairly sullied", I don't see it, even after reading the article. Yes, there is much to admire about him. But, I also still see him as someone who let his family down in many important ways.
* Edited to remove sarcastic comment about Beth's death, cause it was mean of me. And the real life Beth & fictional Beth had real health problems. Sorry about that. It was unnecessary & rude.