If you love reading the usual panoramic, Hollywood-epic-style novels of the Civil War, expect to be taken aback at first by E.L. Doctorow s The March.
But as Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman might have told his troops in 1864, keep going; the prize lies ahead. Fifty pages into what might best be called a minimalist epic, I was frankly wondering if the author of Ragtime had written a historical novel that was about to fail as completely as the Confederacy.
Yet long before the end of this too-short novel, I knew I was wrong, and that Doctorow had triumphed as completely as the Union Army at Appomattox.
The March takes us into the minds and hearts and passions of a handful of men and women, white and black, caught up with and carried along by a major wave in the most traumatic and defining incident in American history.
The main characters include Pearl, the almost-saintly daughter of a white planter and a slave woman; the clinically rational, barely human surgeon Wrede Sartorius, who, in one of the novel s most eerie moments, uses his scalpel to puncture the hymen of a nurse who is about to surrender her virginity to him.
Sherman himself is a character, though seen more as the unkempt, unimpressive and semi-unbalanced figure that he sometimes was than as the military genius who conceived the historic march that helped break the heart of the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant appear in cameo, mainly as described by the surgeon, who was an actual historical figure.
The main characters, however, are to an extent the flotsam and jetsam any war pulls along in its wake: Emily Thompson, the daughter of a dead Georgia Supreme Court justice who becomes a nurse and falls for the coldly efficient union doctor; two soldiers who lag behind, one of whom is later forced to journey for days, carrying his dead companion in tow.
Yet the true brilliance of this novel is not his particular characters, but in the way he seems to put us into our heads. Doctorow uses no quotation marks when his characters speak, something some readers have found to be a flaw.
It is anything but. After a while, it breaks down the barriers. We feel as though we have become them; we see things as they see them, experience life as they do, in a way we never could imagine when watching Gone With the Wind. After a time, we feel that we are in this war. We taste the dust and smell the hideous smells made by the decomposing bodies of thousands of dead animals, and the smells left by a huge unwashed army on the march.
Doctorow also briefly and profoundly sums up the nature of slavery through the view of Stephen Walsh, a Union soldier who enlisted, as so many did, in some draftee s place in order to collect a bounty of $300.
In this strange country down here, after generations of its hideous ways, slaves were no longer simply black, they were degrees of white if the South were to prevail, theoretically there could be a time when whiteness alone would not guarantee the identity of a free man. Anyone might be indentured and shackled and sold on an auction block, the color black having been a temporary expedient, the idea of a slave class itself being the underlying premise.
The March is splendid but not perfect; if it has a flaw, it lies in the depiction of the planters and the slaves, who appear pretty much as black and white two-dimensional characters, much as Harriet Beecher Stowe might have drawn them. (In a nice homage to Ragtime, there is a brief appearance by the father of that novel s most appealing figure, Coalhouse Walker Jr.)
The main character, however, is not human at all, but the setting, and the times, and the people and place together, and the march itself, the surge of humanity which, as it moved, took on a reddish cast. It moved forward, thin as a hatchet blade in front and then widening like the furrow from the plow the sound of this cloud was like nothing they had ever heard in their lives.
It was not fearsomely heaven-made, like thunder or lightning or howling wind, but something felt through their feet, a resonance, as if the earth was humming. Then, carried on a gust of wind, the sound became a rhythmic tromp that relieved them as the human reason for the great cloud of dust.
Whether you care for Civil War novels or not, this is great fiction, a worthy recipient of the National Book Award, which it has just won, and a book that should be a formidable contender for the Pulitzer Prize.
Jack Lessenberry is The Blade s ombudsman.
Contact him at: email@example.com.