For readers of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, the patriarch of the March family is more of an idea than a reality for most of the first half of the novel, as he is off with the Union army ministering to the soldiers as a chaplain. There are hints that Mr. March was, at one time, a man of some fortune, but the family is rather on the poor side at the time that we first meet them and no real backstory is ever provided. Nor is the character of Mr. March fleshed out much more than as the benevolent head of the household, a learned man who gently guides his wife, Marmee, and four daughters in their day-to-day lives through his letters and later his presence after he returns from the war.
After reading Brooks' March, I could only wish that she had left Alcott's masterpiece alone. Instead, she takes it upon herself to tell the story of a man who should have been remembered with vague affection, and instead is revealed to be a naive, weak-willed, gullible, and selfish narcissist. He stubbornly believes that he knows what is best for the people around him, whether it be the welfare of the slaves at a plantation he visits during his early years as a peddler (taking it upon himself to teach a slave child her letters after being expressly forbidden by the master to do so); his wife, whom he marries for her high spirits and keen mind but then tries to subdue when she will not behave as he believes a wife should; his family, when he squanders his entire fortune giving money to the rebel John Brown and is reduced to moving them into little more than a shack; his daughters, who are forced to go out and work to support the household after his folly; and the men around him in the army, to whom his idealism and sense of self-righteousness do more harm than good and lead to his transfer from his regiment because, essentially, no one can stand the man.
In the course of the war, March cheats on his wife with a slave named Grace, whom he had met many years before on that plantation, and justifies it in this way:
"There are many things I have told myself since, in exculpation for what I felt at that moment. I have tried to plead that fatigue had blurred my judgment; that amid so much death the body's compulsion to reach for life, to the very act of generation, could not be gain-said. This much is true: at that moment I believed that the most moral act I could perform would be the one that would unite us, completely. I wanted to give the lie to every claim of difference save the God-ordained one of Genesis: man an woman created he them.
But this, also, is true: I wanted her. The thought of her - arched, shuddering, abandoned - thrilled me to the core."
EW. When I was young, I adored Little Women and wanted a father like the March girls had. Reading this passage was like hearing my parents have sex. I gag a little each time I think about it.
Eventually March falls ill and is sent to a war hospital in Washington, which is where Marmee March comes in. The second half of the novel is told from her perspective, and she learns the truth of everything from Grace, who is now a nurse with the army. Because she has no other choice, she sacks up, tends to her husband, and carries on with her marriage as though she hasn't been shattered in a way that can never be mended.
Honestly, as a reader who has loved Little Women so well and for so long, I wish that I'd never picked up this tripe. I remember reading the dreadful "sequel" to Gone with the Wind and thinking "ugh, what shit," but it didn't ruin my favorite book because the events of Margaret Mitchell's beautiful saga were fixed, and Alexandra Ripley's Scarlett couldn't take away from that. On the other hand, reading March cast a sort of pall over a character and a novel that I had enjoyed for over twenty years. The moral of this review? If you see a book that is trying to ride the coattails of a beloved classic, back away slowly, boys and girls. Just back away.