Wednesday, August 3, 2011

THE MARCH by E. L. Doctorow

Now that I've lived in Georgia for 30 years, it's time I read a novel about General Sherman who cut a swath through the state, burning everything in his path and leaving us with a dearth of pre-Civil War mansions. This novel strikes a pretty even balance between military maneuvering and human interest stories, but Doctorow discards characters with about as much regard for them as Sherman had for the entourage of slaves that latched on to his army. Some characters die along the way, and some are just abandoned, their stories incomplete. Although the author takes several perspectives, not just Sherman's, the omniscient narrator is very dispassionate and even less concerned about the grief and plight of the characters than Sherman himself is. In one particularly memorable scene, an ex-slave photographs two men, one of whom is dead, so that the one still alive can deliver a photo to the dead man's loved ones. Yikes! The tone is not gory, even though a surgeon who is ahead of his time tends to Union and Confederate soldiers alike, nonchalantly hacking off a lot of limbs, for lack of a better option. I think Doctorow enjoys challenging his readers, not just with military strategy, which I did not follow at all, but also with a large and diverse cast of both black and white characters, and I found myself flipping back to previous chapters to confirm their pre-Sherman relationships—master/slave, half-siblings, etc. Unlikely pairings occur frequently among the hangers-on. Pearl, a beautiful teenage product of her slave mother and her white master, is reunited with her master's distraught wife, Mattie, whom she begins to call "step-ma'm," since she's not her mother, but she's married to her father.

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