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The patriarch in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is Mr. March, first name unspecified. He’s a scholar, a minister, a bona fide member of the Concord, Massachusetts, intelligentsia, being a companion of such as Emerson and Thoreau. He’s also a bit of a prude and purist. Vegetarian to the point where he avoids animal matter of all kinds either for ingestion or apparel, because such substances are the property of the animal, and humans have no business eating or exploiting them. And he carries his fanaticism into the cause of abolition. In fact, it might be said that Geraldine Brooks’ splendid work is an exploration of the wages of fanaticism as much as it is an exploration of the cruelties of war.

Geraldine Brooks

March opens on the eve of the Civil War. in the run up to the conflict, March has devoted himself to financing the hostilities even to the extent of impoverishing his family. They go from a grand house to a bungalow, from good garments to patchwork. A good portion of the money goes to the cause of the fanatic John Brown. The Concord transcendentalists apparently provide a good portion of the money used to support the abortive Harper’s Ferry scheme whereby the captured arms the enthusiasm generated by the raid on the federal arsenal there would spark a nationwide race war and end American slavery.

That project ended with Brown’s hanging, but the abolitionist fervor still burned bright. The war began, and March signed up as a chaplain and left for South Carolina, where he became the clergy conscience of a union-captured plantation of Oak Grove, South Carolina. The union government turned the plantation over to the management of a white northerner with the idea that it would be an opportunity to turn a slave enterprise into a free market operation. The slaves would become wage earners, and profits would go to the manager. Predictably, things did not go as planned. The racist, profit-driven manager was not much better as a master than the slave master himself. There were still plenty of rebel guerrillas around who were dedicated to seeing that the whole concept failed. Crops were burned, husbandry sabotaged. Union troops vandalized and stole everything that wasn’t nailed down, deeming it their right as victors to carry away anything that could be carried.

Amid all this, March did his best to set up a school, to ameliorate the capitalist-manager’s cruelty, to arrange for medical care for the “former” slaves whom the manager neglected. The usual trappings of slavery–incest, rape, brutality still prevail. Finally, though, Oak Grove produces a bumper cotton crop. It appears that the manager will not be cast into penury after all. But all is for naught.

March contracts a fever of some sort which leaves him weakened and delirious. Without spoiling the tale too much, I’ll simply say that the journey back home to Massachusetts is difficult and enervating, yet does nothing to dim March’s enthusiasm for his cause nor to energize his obligations to his “little women.” “Moderation in all things,” said Aristotle ( I believe). Would that March had paid attention to his counsel.

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