Derek's Reviews > The March

The March by E.L. Doctorow
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Jan 04, 11


A Civil War novel second only to Charles Frazier's impeccable Cold Mountain, E.L. Doctorow's The March follows William Tecumseh Sherman's rampage through Georgia and the Carolinas in harrowing and hallucinatory detail, weaving multiple narratives (sometimes overlapping, sometimes not) and delving into the morality, contradiction, and horror of America's arguably darkest moment.

What works so well is not only Doctorow's clear gift for economical and poetic description of war's terribleness (rape, senseless murder, disease, unalleviated suffering), but also the strangely organic form that Sherman's march takes: like cells in a larger organism, characters appear and die off (or, in some instances, leave), and yet the march continues onward, consuming everything in its path. There are of course central characters here, but Doctorow's attention shifts quite regularly; rarely does the narrative stay with one character for more than a few pages before we've revisited another storyline. It sounds like it could be disjointed or distracting, but it's not. Instead, it illuminates the common themes throughout the novel nicely and moves the narrative with urgency and excitement.

I love also that Doctorow gives such space not only to the Union soldiers on the march, but to the Southern civilians, former slaves, and Rebels who, by various circumstances, have found themselves joining the march for salvation (which never really comes, at least not in the way they imagine it). Former slave girl Pearl's narrative is clearly the standout, and Doctorow does phenomenal work of humanizing her story, making it her own, but also making it a feasible stand-in for the thousands of similar real-life narratives that could very well find a place in a longer text. Her energy and wit are at the center of The March, which would otherwise be a lightless and hopelessly bleak story without it.

I'm far from an expert on Civil War military movements or campaigns, but you needn't be to enjoy The March. In fact, I'd venture to guess that if you were an expert on such things, Doctorow's character-centric story might not work for you as well as, say, a Jeff Shaara book that provides such detail. Instead, this is a book for literary geeks (count me gladly among them) who get off on great character development, thematic cohesion, and poetic attention to setting. If you're sure that historical fiction isn't your bag, I implore you to give this one a chance anyway.

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