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21 March 2005

Geraldine Brooks's first novel Year of Wonders (2001) is intriguing and original historical fiction. Her second novel March also intrigues, though it's less original. It's the latest in a recent wave of "from the perspective of a minor character in a famous work" novels that includes Wicked and Ahab's Wife. To be fair, Brooks is not just climbing onto a bandwagon; the genre is at least as old as the Aeneid, and Gilgamesh was probably an intriguing bit player in some lost prehistoric epic. But these stories have really gathered steam lately, and it's just a matter of time before someone writes Count Olenski and The Person from Porlock and a trilogy that shows how Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice has been seriously misunderstood.

The conceit in March is that Marmee's husband, father to Meg Jo Beth and Amy, who spends Little Women conveniently offstage, has a backstory of considerable interest. And as the girls bemoan a Christmas without presents, their dad is off having war experiences that would traumatize Ambrose Bierce.

Specifically, Mr. March had, long before meeting Marmee, a passionate encounter with a slave named Grace Clement, who recalls Cynara in Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone (another of the major-work-turned-inside-out novels of recent years). The genteel poverty that afflicts the Marches in Little Women comes from March père's squandering his fortune in support of John Brown's revolution. (Brown also appears in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead this year; he is gaining fictional followers by the handful.) Marmee et al. are friends of the Emersons and the Thoreaus. (As Louisa May Alcott was; March freely mixes fictional and historical characters in a League of Extraordinary Gentlemanly way. When the scene shifts to a Washington, D.C. military hospital late in the novel, I started making book on how soon we'd run into Walt Whitman, but to Brooks's credit, the Good Grey One never appears.) The Marches even turn out to be major conductors on the Underground Railroad.

March, sensitive parents should know, is not a children's title. It's fine for young adults, but unless you want your fourth-grader to read a graphic description of the begetting of Meg, she should probably stick to Alcott for the moment.

I think that March will be remembered as merely clever rather than as an incisive reworking like The Wind Done Gone or Jean Rhys's influential Wide Sargasso Sea. But it's a substantial success for Brooks, who follows Year of Wonders with another historical suspenser that knows its limits and delivers the goods within them.

Brooks, Geraldine. March. NY: Viking, 2005.