March By Geraldine Brooks Pulitzer Prize English Literature Essay
Note to readers: this is a chapter-by-chapter plot synopsis and contains spoilers. If this isn't what you want, please go to the review (no spoilers) of March. March is a terrific book, and I urge you to read it for yourself. (Brought to you by kat impatientreader.com)
Book Summary: Mr. March (the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's novelLittle Women) almost destroys his marriage when he volunteers to serve in the Civil War as a Union chaplain, then almost destroys his health when working with Union "contraband" (freed slaves growing cotton on freed plantations for the Union war effort). His wife Marmee must overcome her deep resentment towards him after his idealistic dreams are shattered, and give him a reason to live.
Mr. March, idealistic 40 year-old vegetarian, Unitarian minister, and abolitionist. (The author based March on Bronson Alcott, real-life father of Louisa May Alcott who wroteLittle Women – except that Bronson Alcott was too old to have fought in the Civil War.)
March's wife Margaret Marie, known as "Marmee."
Grace Clement, the beautiful slave who becomes a nurse.
Ethan Canning, the Illinois lawyer who leases Oak Landing plantation.
Jesse, Zannah, Jimse, Ptolemy, and Zeke who are freed slaves at Oak Landing.
Setting: war scenes in Virginia, domestic scenes in Concord, Massachusetts. Oak Landing scenes at an unspecified location near the Mississippi river, hospital scenes in Washington DC.
Time period: 1861 to late 1862/early 1863, and flashbacks to 10 to 20 years previous.
Title: March refers to Mr. March, the main character, but could also refer to a military march.
Viewpoint: First-person and past tense. It's Mr. March from Chapters 1 through 13, and Chapters 18 and 19. Marmee gets a first-person viewpoint in Chapters 14 through 17.
Part One (Mr. March's viewpoint)
Chapter 1: Mr. March sits down under a tree and writes Marmee a flowery letter. His unit has pulled back to tend to their wounded after almost getting wiped out by Confederate troops at the battle of Ball's Bluff in Virginia. He feels guilty about withholding the truth from Marmee of his awful circumstances. He remembers how the Confederate troops shot up his fellow soldiers, and thinks of a comrade Silas Stone whom he let drown in the river in order to save himself. He walks down the road to a plantation house that the Union army is using as a field hospital, and realizes that he knows the place: he was there 22 years ago.
Chapter 2: Mr. March remembers being an 18 year-old peddler of kitchen trinkets and arriving at the plantation house, hoping to make a sale. A young house-slave named Grace opens the door; he is struck by her beauty and educated, refined speech. She invites him into the kitchen where he makes friends with Annie, the cook. Nobody wants his trinkets, but his small collection of books wins him an introduction to the master, Augustus Clement. Mr. Clement has a huge library, a luxury for those times. Mr. March disapproves of slavery; even so, he and Mr. Clement bond strongly over the books and Mr. Clement invites Mr. March to live at the plantation as long as he likes.
Mr. March stays for a year. Mrs. Clement is an invalid, and Grace is her personal slave. The Clement son travels on plantation business for his father. Aside from Mr. Clement, March is most comfortable with Annie the cook, a widow with two beautiful children. One night he starts teaching her daughter Prudence how to read. Horrified, Annie and Grace tell him that it's illegal to teach slaves to read. (Grace is an exception.)
However, Grace, with whom he has already shared a forbidden kiss, asks Mr. March to teach Prudence in secret. He agrees. But he's found out by Harris, the plantation manager. Grace claims responsibility, attempting to protect Annie and Prudence. Mr. Clement makes Mr. March watch Harris give Grace a flogging as punishment, and then kicks him off the plantation.
Chapter 3: (Brought to you by kat impatientreader.com) Mr. March, now back in the Clement house in the present, helps the impatient surgeon tend to the wounded. He runs into Grace who is still living there, tending to the ailing Mr. Clement. Grace remembers Mr. March warmly, and helps him with the wounded.
She catches him up on everything that's happened: while March made a fortune as a peddler and then became a Unitarian minister and abolitionist, the Clement family suffered a sharp decline. Mrs. Clement died. The son got killed in a hunting accident. Mr. Clement sold Annie's kids further south, and Annie drowned herself in the river. Mr. Clement's health disintegrated. Harris left, and worse managers ran the plantation into the ground. Grace herself barely escaped being sold as a prostitute: only the disfiguring scars on her back from the long-ago flogging saved her.
Mr. March asks why Grace remains with Mr. Clement when the military surgeon has offered to get Grace a job in a hospital in Georgetown. Grace confesses that Mr. Clement is her own father, and she feels some loyalty to him. March realizes that he and Grace are still attracted to each other.
Chapter 4: Mr. March writes another flowery letter to Marmee after his unit captures Harpers Ferry in West Virginia. He remembers how he met Marmee through her brother Daniel Day, a fellow abolitionist and Unitarian minister.
Mr. March goes into town and stops a group of soldiers harassing a "rebel" woman and her daughter. He reports their conduct to the colonel only to find that the colonel wants him transferred. March is too radical a Christian to be a comforting chaplain. Plus his abolitionist stance is very unpopular: the Union soldiers regard freed slaves as future competition for their jobs up North.
The colonel orders March to apply for a position with the "contraband": freed slaves who work captured plantations to support the Union army's side. March refuses, and the colonel threatens him: apparently the surgeon has written out a complaint that he once saw March and Grace embracing. If March doesn't transfer, the colonel will put the surgeon's complaint in March's military file. To avoid a scandal, March bitterly agrees to transfer.
Chapter 5: Mr. March remembers being a young minister and moving to Concord, Massachusetts. He rooms with the Thoreau family and makes friends with their eccentric grown son, Henry David. He meets Ralph Waldo Emerson at a party attended by many, including Marmee and her brother, who routinely smuggle slaves to freedom along the underground railroad. He and Marmee sneak away from the party and consummate their relationship in the forest. That night they conceive their oldest daughter Meg. The next day March marries Marmee in a quiet ceremony in her parents' parlor.
Chapter 6: Mr. March arrives at Oak Landing plantation now being leased to Ethan Canning, a young Illinois lawyer. He is shocked at what he sees: the house is stripped of furniture, and the black "contraband" (who haven't been paid in months) are starving and sickly, and must toil sun-up to sundown in the cotton fields. Some grudgingly admit that life was better under their former masters the Crofts. Worst of all, one named Zeke has been confined to a dry well for stealing a hog to feed his children.
Horrified, March confronts Canning who gives a different viewpoint. Zeke stole the hog for his grown sons who ride with the rebel forces, enjoying the plunder. Apparently Canning inherited a no-win situation when he arrived so late in the cotton-picking season. Now everyone including him must work non-stop or die of starvation. On top of that, Canning gets no protection from the inadequate Union garrison against rebel raids. Mr. March listens, both humbled and horrified.
Chapter 7: (Brought to you by kat impatientreader.com) Mr. March remembers how he lost the fortune he had built up as a peddler and wise investor. In the early days of his marriage, his only worry centered on Marmee's passionate temper which he found frightening and unseemly. Then when the famous abolitionist John Brown comes to Concord to give a lecture, Mr. March backs Brown's cause financially to impress Marmee. Brown plans to buy land and establish a community of freed slaves in the Adirondacks. But Brown mismanages the money over the years, spending it on caches of weapons. Gradually the Marchs descend so far into poverty that Mr. March's rich aunt offers to adopt Jo to relieve them of "the burden of one more mouth to feed." Mr. March has to physically restrain Marmee from attacking his aunt. The Marchs move to a tiny cottage close to the Emersons, and Meg starts working as a governess to help the family finances. In an amusing twist (which occurs in Little Women) Jo accepts a part-time paid position to be Aunt March's companion.
Chapter 8: With the Oak Landing cotton harvest in, the workers now have time to attend school taught by Mr. March; he writes Marmee about their progress. Some Union scouts trick a little black kid named Jimse into burning his hand on a kettle. Mr. March tends to Jimse's burned hand, feeds him dinner, and then falls asleep with the kid in his lap. He wakes to see Jimse's young mother Zannah watching him, and hands over Jimse. The next day, Zannah leaves him a woven hat as a thank-you. His curiosity about her grows and he tries to get her to speak up in class. His best student Jesse, who has become the freed slaves' unofficial leader, explains that Zannah can't speak because her tongue was cut out years ago by two white men who raped her.
Chapter 9: The cotton harvest gets sent north on the river, and another boat arrives full of donations gathered by Marmee for the freed slaves. They are thrilled and Canning allows them a night of celebration before planting the next crop. Canning receives the profits on the sale of the current crop and pays the workers though he's still in debt. Moved by the fact that Canning kept his promises, the workers hand over a surprise: some hidden bales of cotton from the previous year. When the Crofts left the plantation, the rebels came in and ordered them to burn the cotton, but they managed to hide some. Now they give it to Canning and he's so grateful that he might be able to avoid bankruptcy that he allows them another night of celebration. Mr. March attends and gets carried away with drinking, singing, and dancing.
Chapter 10: March wakes the next day with yellow fever, a serious recurring illness. Canning rides to the Union garrison to get him a doctor, but no one wants to help an abolitionist like March. The workers nurse March back to precarious health. Then the Union garrison withdraws, leaving only a token force for "protection" against the rebels. March vows to stay on with Canning, but starts sleeping in a hiding place in a store-room in case rebels raid the place.
Chapter 11: Mr. March remembers his life just after abolitionist John Brown's failed raid on the garrison at Harpers Ferry. The South demands prosecution of northerners who backed Brown, and March keeps a low profile while several of his acquaintances leave the country. Most Northerners such as Nathaniel Hawthorne condemn Brown's willingness to commit violence. Henry David Thoreau is the only one to speak up in Brown's defense, comparing him in a passionate speech to Jesus.
At Marmee's insistence, March continues to help runaway slaves though he risks arrest under the newly passed Fugitive Slave Act. The Marchs shelter a slave girl named Flora. Once when they are out, the sheriff comes to the house and tries to bluster his way in without a search warrant. Only meek little Beth is at home, and later March listens with astonishment as Beth tells him how she stood up to the sheriff and refused to let him in. The Marchs send Flora to safety in Canada.
That spring, war breaks out. The young men from Concord muster in the Cattle Show grounds and make speeches. Mr. March impulsively volunteers to join. Marmee, with tears in her eyes, reaches out to him and he interprets her emotion as pride in him and loving support. Later, she clutches his hand hard, and he interprets it the same way. The whole town treats him like a hero.
Chapter 12: (Brought to you by kat impatientreader.com) The rebels overrun Oak Landing plantation in the middle of the night. Mr. March hides, but they seize Canning, shooting him in the knees. They kill Ptolemy, an old black man, trying to force March out of hiding to save him. Then they torch the cotton fields and take the black children as slaves. Poor Zannah runs to join them so she can be with her son Jimse.
Chapter 13: March and Jesse follow the rebels to a camp in the woods where the rebels get drunk on some homemade liquor that Jesse left at his cabin and laced with something to make them sick. As each rebel staggers into the woods to relieve himself, Jesse kills them and takes their weapons. Jesse tries to give March a gun so that March can help him rescue the kids, but March refuses it: he cannot take a life.
The rebel leader questions Canning who can't name anyone willing to pay a ransom for him. March watches in agitation until the rebel leader verges on shooting Canning, then bursts out of hiding and shouts that Canning's fiancée will pay his ransom (he once saw the girl's photo). But Canning says that his fiancée died last year of consumption. The rebels tie up both Canning and March. March relapses into his yellow fever.
Zannah, who has been made to tend the campfire, tiptoes around and unties the captives. Jesse starts shooting the rebels, and the captives run for safety. March sees Canning and several of the captives die, then loses consciousness and is left for dead.
Zannah returns to tend to him, and he learns her son Jimse is dead. She gives March a lock of Jimse's hair, then gets March on a mule and takes him to safety. He wakes on a Union ship, being tended by nuns who tell him that Zannah brought him to a Union fort and wrote a message on her scarf that he was a Union captain and a "good, kind man." March is overcome by sorrow.
Part Two (Marmee's viewpoint)
Chapter 14: Marmee sits at Mr. March's bedside in a Georgetown hospital and remembers the afternoon in Concord when he volunteered to join the Union army. Appalled that he might die and doom his family to poverty, she stretched out her hands in tears to prevent him. In her memory, he knew full well she didn't want him to join, and he did it anyway, and so she gripped his hand tightly afterwards to hurt him.
She remembers getting word that her husband was in the Georgetown hospital, and traveling there with young Mr. Brooke, a friend of the family to serve as her escort in the muddy, refugee-crowded chaos that is Washington DC. She remembers meeting a beautiful black nurse (Grace Clement, unknown to her at first) who warns her that Mr. March is changed by his illness. Marmee is horrified to find him delirious on the yellow fever ward. An abrasive Nurse Flynn will answer none of her questions. Overwhelmed, Marmee meekly leaves and follows Mr. Brooke to the squalid rooming house of Mrs. Jamison, which is the best lodging that they can get in the overcrowded city.
Chapter 15: Marmee returns to the hospital where Mr. March lies untended, and realizes she must change his sheets and clean him up herself. She runs into the odious Nurse Flynn and tries hard to be polite but soon loses her temper and throws a bowl of soup on the horrible woman. An orderly Cephus White finds her a place to sit until Nurse Flynn goes off her shift. A union chaplain gives Marmee her husband's personal possessions. Marmee returns to the ward in time to see nurse Grace Clement stroking March's face. She wonders if they were lovers, but cannot confront them because Mr. Brooke rushes up joyfully, saying that he hears Mr. March is awake.
Chapter 16: (Brought to you by kat impatientreader.com) Marmee sits with March as Grace and Mr. Brooke withdraw to allow them their privacy. She asks him if Grace was his lover and even shakes him as he lapses into unconsciousness. Stopping herself, she goes through his possessions instead and finds the lock of Negro hair which she thinks is from Grace (and which is really Jimse's, given by Zannah in Chapter 13).
She searches the hospital for Grace who has gone off her shift. The black laundresses, who think Grace is a snob, tell Marmee that Grace lives in the household of a Dr. Hale; they imply that Grace is having an affair with the doctor.
Horrified, Marmee goes to Dr. Hale's sizeable mansion and demands to speak with Grace. Immediately she can see that Grace seems to be a close friend to both the Hales and not a mistress.
Grace tells Marmee everything from when she first met March 22 years ago to the hug that she and March shared that led him to transfer to Oak Landing. She also fills in all the war hardships that she pieced together from March's delirious ramblings, and that he neglected to put in his letters to Marmee. She admits that March is infatuated with her, but stresses that it's not a real love but an idealistic attraction to her as a symbol of freedom.
Marmee confronts Grace with the lock of Negro hair found in her husband's possessions. Grace unwinds her scarf and shows Marmee that her hair is completely different, then correctly identifies the hair as belonging to a child. Marmee leaves, knowing that Grace wasn't her husband's lover. But she still resents her husband for his infatuation with Grace and especially for not writing truthfully to her about his wartime hardships.
Chapter 17: Mr. March's health gets worse. Grace tells Marmee that his extreme guilt over those whom he wasn't able to save is sabotaging his recovery. She urges Marmee to forgive him and to help him forgive himself. Marmee realizes that she does love her husband precisely for his self-destructive idealism. She tries to make March see that what is important is the effort he put into trying to help people, and not the outcome of whether or not he managed to save them. She further tells him that some things such as war have consequences that are too vast for any one individual like him to change, and that to think otherwise is prideful: he needs to let himself off the hook. He asks her to leave so he can sleep.
Chapter 18 (Mr. March's viewpoint): March wakes to find that Marmee has returned to Concord to nurse Beth through a bout of scarlet fever. Marmee has left him a note, urging him to return home as soon as he's recovered. March slowly recovers and tries to help Grace around the hospital. He tends to the orderly Cephus White (who helped out Marmee in Chapter 15); the poor boy, recovering from a war-wound himself, has to have his leg amputated, and then he dies. March is filled with guilt, and Grace snaps at him to quit wallowing in it and get on with his life. He snaps back that she is so noble she can't possibly know anything about guilt.
Grace then tells him her darkest secret: Mr. Clement's son, her half-brother, didn't die in a hunting accident. Grace shot him after he raped her, knowing she was his half-sister. Even worse, their father intended her to be his son's mistress. Grace feels that every disaster that happened to the Clements afterwards came from her act of violence.
She tells March that she lives with her guilt by moving on with her life and trying to do good. He eagerly decides to go with her to help the Negro troops as the war progresses. She angrily tells him that the black race needs to manage its own destiny, and there will be black preachers and healers who can do a far better job for the black troops than he can. She tells him his place is with those who truly need him: his family.
Chapter 19 (Mr. March's viewpoint): March returns home to Marmee and his daughters in Concord. He is still wracked with guilt, but he knows he needs to be there for his family. The End.
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