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The man among 'Little Women'

By Geraldine Brooks

Published May 8, 2005


Viking, $24.95, 280 pp

The portrait of the father in Little Women is limited. He is away at war and, upon his return, shut up in the library. So, to create an entire novel about the man, Geraldine Brooks cleverly has taken advantage of the autobiographical nature of Louisa May Alcott's novel and based her character not only on the slim details of the fictional Mr. March, but also on the life of Amos Bronson Alcott, Louisa's own exacting, possibly visionary, father.

The Alcotts settled in Concord, Mass., and were a part of the intellectual and spiritual transcendentalist movement pioneered by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom they counted among their neighbors. Indeed, Bronson Alcott, who is supposed to have inspired Emerson's Nature, was an extremist - a vegetarian who raised his family as vegetarians and attempted the creation of a Utopian commune called Fruitlands (whose failure Louisa lampooned in Transcendental Wild Oats).

Bronson Alcott was also a passionate idealist who was a pioneer - some might say radical - in education. His wife, Abigail May Alcott, who was called Marmee, a nickname Louisa May Alcott also uses in Little Women, was by all accounts a social activist in her own right. In short, the Alcotts were the intellectuals and activists of their day.

Brooks' March is then both a work of fiction and a recreation of a real time and place. It is a place that is physically different from our own but intellectually and emotionally reverberates with ideals and passions that still move us. Mr. March is an idealistic Army chaplain who has left his family to do anything he can (at 40 he is too old to be a soldier), writing letters home and ruminating on his life. His letters recount the sanitized version of the battles and atrocities he witnesses as he moves about war-torn Virginia, even as his private thoughts reveal the gradual loss of his innocence. When, late in the novel, the narrative voice switches to Marmee's as she journeys to Washington to tend her ailing husband, Brooks performs a similar feat again - only this time it is Marmee whose innocence is lost. Perhaps, more than any other time in our history, the Civil War years were America's loss of innocence. If so, what better family to represent that loss than the March family?

Indeed, throughout March, a vivid work of the imagination that renders the realities of love, war and slavery with gritty yet lyric realism, Brooks weaves in moments from Little Women seen from the perspective of a father off at war. The result is a kind of novelistic doppelganger that summons the iconic lives of Alcott's four title characters and supplies a subtext to those lives that surely was a part of the fabric from which Alcott (herself a nurse on the front lines of the Civil War) fashioned her tale.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, the power and longevity of Little Women - first published in 1868, it has remained in print ever since and has been translated into numerous languages - lies in that unspoken fabric. For there can be nothing more compelling than continued strength and idealism in the face of innocence lost.

-- Mindi Dickstein lives in New Jersey and wrote the lyrics for Little Women: The Musical, currently on Broadway at the Virginia Theater.

[Last modified May 7, 2005, 11:22:03]

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