"March" by Geraldine Brooks

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Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women ranks among the American classics of fiction. It covers the tribulations of the young March family of sisters as they come of age and begin to navigate the adult world. The young ladies’ father, John March, returns toward the end of the novel from fighting in the Civil War. He is a deeply wounded individual emotionally. At first he struggles even to speak amid the joyous holiday uproar which celebrates and surrounds him.

One can’t say, really, how much demand there might have been for the story of John March. We are all extremely lucky Geraldine Brooks felt the lack, because her brilliant, compendious, and utterly convincing March fills it for all time.

March tracks the progress of John March’s ghastly, harrowing, nearly fatal, journey to the front lines in 1861 Virginia. He sets off as a highly idealistic chaplain, who quickly learns he doesn’t understand the men in his charge, and who in turn do not trust him and ridicule him. He transfers to a plantation which has been converted to a refugee camp for slaves who have been liberated. The central, the searing, episodes of John March’s war experience occur here.

But can such wrenching, epochal events in a man’s life be told without telling their effects on his adoring wife? His self-centered idealism combines with his lack of quotidian skills to force Marmee—on her own—to maintain a home, hold off creditors, raise five daughters during critical years of their lives, and cope with the poverty John’s idealism has plunged them into. When she travels to Washington to try to nurse him to health after his grievous wounds, she learns things about his life—secrets—which astonish and infuriate her.

Which brings us to Grace Clement, the gracious, soft-spoken slave whose father was a plantation owner. She shows both John and Marmee the path to postwar life: one must hew it with love, light it with understanding, and smooth it with forgiveness. Her presence provides the book with a beacon; her very name provides hope.

A book so full of brilliances: the gracious 19th-Century diction which never gets in the way; the appalling treatment of slaves by both sides; the insight that abolitionists probably made  up similar percentages of combatants in each opposing army; the kindness and wisdom flowing from an unexpected quarter; the chaos, callousness, and contagion of war. Its central power, as in all excellent, brilliant fiction, flows from the foolish hopes and then the grace under fire of transformed human beings. Superb.


"Chouette" by Claire Oshetsky

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As we read through Claire Oshetsky’s Chouette, we dwell in a confusing landscape of fantasy on the one hand, and hardpan reality on the other. Tiny, a diminutive virtuoso cellist, becomes pregnant and gives birth to a baby owl. She knows it’s an owl-baby from the moment of conception: there’s an imagined scene in which her owl lover, a female, sleeps with her in a place cryptically called “the Gloaming,” in a tender, sensual scene, and during which Tiny conceives. The author then lets hardpan reality dominate, and result is a unique, quirky flight of fancy requiring agility on the part of the reader.

Chouette, Tiny’s daughter owl, proves a challenge from the get-go, even before she’s born. Tiny has a relatively difficult pregnancy, what with talons and a beak inside her, and the birth causes very predictable consternation on everyone but her. The delivering doctor tries to forget what he’s seen, and succeeds rather too quickly. Her husband, at first thrilled with her pregnancy, is repelled by his infant daughter, and never stops trying to turn her into something a little, or a lot, more human. Her husband’s family does its best to repudiate Tiny and Chouette, eventually ostracizing them completely. Tiny’s husband goes along with it.

Readers can take Chouette as a very typical example of how a child can be pulled in opposite directions by parents who apparently want very different things for their child.  The conflict between Tiny and her once-doting husband rings honest and true, and he sides with his family, alienating Tiny, and making her ever more protective of Chouette. Her husband’s family of five tall brothers and their opinionated wives come through as a single unit of suspicion and rejection. The medical profession fares poorly in this book, too. The doctors are self-absorbed, greedy, dismissive, brusque, and hostile. A woman doesn’t have to give birth to a baby owl to experience any of this.

Chouette is spare, well-paced and suspenseful, and contains characters you wish well. It builds with anticipated gloom and failure, and yet does not yield to run-of-the-mill expectation. It will surprise you every time. It does stretch one’s willingness to suspend disbelief, but once you’re on board with the fantasy, its other virtues come to the fore. For me, it’s really a study on one young mother’s struggle to love her baby against odds, and can stand for thousands, or millions, of other mothers in the same boat.