Monday, April 03, 2006

Book Review: The March

The March, by E.L. Doctorow is the best Civil War novel I've read in ages. It follows General William Tecumseh Sherman's march from Atlanta to Savannah, through South Carolina, and on to Raleigh, North Carolina. Sherman himself makes many appearances in the book, but it is not a biography of the general. Doctorow gives equal time to dozens of other characters including a pair of Confederate deserters, a displaced Southern debutante, a brilliant Union field surgeon, and perhaps the central character, a precocious freed slave named Pearl.

At times the novel wavers between existential despair and existential absurdity. Favorite characters are killed or otherwise left by the way side as the rest march relentlessly on. Other main characters don't appear until the journey is two-thirds complete. At first, Doctorow's apparently haphazard plotting drove me crazy, but he seems to be making a point. This is war. Don't get too attached to anyone.

What's constant throughout is Doctorow's beautiful prose, masterful strokes in character development, and attention to historical detail. Abraham Lincoln even makes a brief appearance. In the hands of another writer, the scene might have been corny or unconvincing. Doctorow's glimpse of Lincoln is hauntingly believable.

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