Like many women, Geraldine Brooks was inspired by Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, which she first read as a girl in Australia. Though her mother, whom Brooks calls one of the world's great cynics, advised her to take it with a grain of salt (“nobody in real life is as goody-goody as that Marmee”), Brooks had a strong reaction to the book and its heroine, the irrepressible Jo March.
“I thought she was fantastic,” Brooks recalls during a call to Australia, where she'd just spent the year with her husband, writer Tony Horwitz, and their eight-year-old son. “This really powerful girl character who's struggling to find her way creatively and to fit into the social restrictions that were so overwhelming . . . my situation was so different on the other side of the world and a century removed, but it just fired me up.”
The events of Little Women take place while Mr. March is off serving in the Civil War. The original ending of the novel finds him safe at home with his family but says next to nothing about his wartime experiences. “It's like Jane Austen and the Napoleonic Wars; it's just not the business of her books, but that was the background of their times,” explains Brooks. While Horwitz was researching Confederates in the Attic (1998), his best-selling book about the Civil War's legacy in the modern-day South, Brooks found that she had unwittingly become something of an expert on the War Between the States.
“When he was writing that, a tremendous amount of our lives was consumed with Civil War trips. And I wasn't crazy about this for a long time. But suddenly somehow the stories of the individuals started to work on my imagination.” Brooks became fascinated by the moral debate that took place in Waterford, the Virginia town where her family now lives, which was settled by Quakers in 1733. “These pacifists were passionate abolitionists, yet were part of the South. And then one day this light bulb went off in my head, and I was thinking, gee, Alcott's Little Women was really one of the first Civil War novels, and how would that [conflict] have played out for a man like March?”
March is the incredible result of these two converging trains of thought, though the novel “touches only tangentially on Little Women. I wouldn't have the hubris to attempt to rewrite Louisa May Alcott, so I've just taken the bit of the story she didn't want to deal with, for whatever complex, psychological or Freudian reasons,” Brooks laughs. Her fascinating and meticulously researched novel imagines the Civil War experiences of Mr. March, whom she based on Alcott's own father. Brooks' March is an idealist and a man of faith whose convictions are challenged by the horrors of war.
Faith in crisis is a topic that particularly interests Brooks, who wrote about an English village devastated by the plague in her first novel, Year of Wonders. “It is a theme I keep returning to. I'm intrigued by people who have strong beliefs, because I don't. I'm a spiritual quester, but I also think that you have to work very hard to make the ethical choice rather than the expedient one.”
Deciding that the cause of abolition is worth the necessary evil of war, March enlists as a chaplain. He expects hardship, but the reality of battle is almost more than he can bear. March struggles to keep the disillusionment he feels from his daily letters home to the girls and Marmee, which are a marked contrast to the honest and, as a consequence, graphic, scenes of wartime life masterfully depicted by Brooks. These experiences are interspersed with March's recollections of his youth spent as a traveling salesman; his passionate courtship of the intelligent, fiery Margaret May (Marmee); and their married life as prominent citizens of Concord, Massachusetts, who rubbed elbows and exchanged thoughts with Emerson and Thoreau.
March's character is skillfully drawn through his own thoughts and actions, but Brooks rounds out his portrayal in the few brief chapters told through Marmee's eyes. Her practical voice is a marked contrast to that of her visionary husband, and she has difficulty accepting that March has concealed much of the truth of his experiences.
Idealistic men and their pragmatic female counterparts have appeared in both of Brooks' novels: is she making a larger statement about men and women?
“That hadn't occurred to me, but I also think it's very true, and something that comes from my experiences of being a foreign correspondent in the Middle East [for the Wall Street Journal]. You'd have these fiery-eyed Islamic preachers like the Ayatollah telling everybody how it had to be, and then you'd have women actually having to feed their families and keep them safe through the consequences of that,” she says. “Even in our comparatively luxurious circumstances, even in my own life as a writer, you might have a male novelist who feels free to go into some kind of, don't disturb me, I'm in my ivory tower out in the woods thing, but as a mother, the kid has to be dressed. So you're always tied into the practical world, and I think that's a good thing.”
Brooks is content with her life in the practical world. Her family spends time each year (“ideally it'd be half-and-half”) in Virginia and Australia, despite the 24-hour journey. “The only good thing about it is after you get used to coming back and forth to Australia, every other plane flight seems short!” She's working on another historical novel. “It's sort of insanely ambitious. It's the story of a [real-life] Hebrew manuscript that was created in 14th-century Spain and still exists today. I'm tracing it through the hands that held it. I love finding these stories in history where you know something, but you can't know everything, and so you've got the license to let your imagination fill in the voids.”
And she's looking forward to readers' responses to March. “I hope that people who love Little Women will see it as a respectful homage to Louisa May books find new lives and new readers all the time.”