Geraldine Brooks' first historical novel, Year of Wonders, follows a young woman as she discovers her medical talents during the plague of 1666, finds herself disabused of certain fantasies (sexual and otherwise) about the local clergyman and his wife, and ultimately winds up in a utopian harem. March, Brooks' second novel, reinvents Louisa May Alcott's Little Women by following Mr. March--based closely on Bronson Alcott--during his year as a wartime chaplain. Like other texts rewritten from the perspective of a marginalized character (except for a brief stretch in Marmee's voice, the novel is narrated entirely by March), March tries to undo at least some of its source's sacred cows: March himself is, as Marmee eventually concedes, an "inconstant, ruined dreamer" (259), whose political ideals ruin his family financially; Marmee feels trapped by March's relatively conventional notions of womanhood; March's eventual return home does not reinstate the family's earlier domestic idyll, but instead forces him to realize that "I would do my best to live in the quick world, but the ghosts of the dead would ever be at hand" (273). Some of the novel's themes carry over from Year of Wonders--in particular, both Marmee's and March's discoveries that a loved one bears a threatening romantic secret, as well as ex-slave Grace Clement's developing skill as a nurse. The most interesting theme, however, rests in the tension between a character's belief in the need to lie and the forces that make them reveal the truth. Thus, March censors his Civil War experiences for his family, only to have them inadvertently revealed to Marmee by Grace; the slaves and ex-slaves learn how to lie in order to protect themselves, but face sometimes fatal consequences when found out; Grace conceals her responsibility for the death of her white father's son--and her attempted rapist--but, years after the event, bears the burden of unwilling guilt. The novel's close, in which March resigns himself to performing the role of happily redomesticated patriarch, suggests that there is no easy way out of this dilemma.
While March is certainly an above-average exercise in realist historical fiction, the novel makes few technical advances on its predecessor--and, as Civil War fiction, pales in comparison to E. L. Doctorow's The March, one of the novels it beat for the Pulitzer Prize. The adjective I'm seeking, I think, is "safe." March's gently feminist take on Little Women (which is not exactly a conservative text, for all of its frequent sentimentality) is unexceptionable, but hardly unexpected, and its simultaneous affection for but anxiety about utopianism is similarly unoriginal. I didn't come away from March feeling as though the novel taught me something new about the historical novel as a genre, let alone about Little Women or the Civil War. It would be nice to see Brooks do something a bit more ambitious.