Thursday, December 22, 2011

As harsh as truth

Because I rifled through Mi Cunado's book collection while in Michigan, I ordered March from the library when I got home. Told from the point of view of the father in Little Women during his time away during the Civil War, it was an intriguing tale of idealism clashing with reality.

The protagonist was an incredibly naive abolitionist minister; for much of the book, he worked in Union-held territory teaching slaves how to read. His life story flashes back to his strong abolitionist past, his friendships with Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Brown. And as the eager Northern do-gooder encounters the real-world scenarios of his ideals, the reader too has to witness the horrors of both slavery and war.

I appreciated how Geraldine Brooks added more flair to snippets from Little Women. In this alternate telling, the March family were secretly all involved in the Underground Railroad. Marmee's temper - mentioned briefly in Alcott's classic because she tells Jo she learned to master it - takes center stage in many of the chapters (actually, it was a little scary how Marmee's temper in March reminded me of mine).

When I finished the book, I knew there was more to the story of the March family - and more to the story of the war, which would drag on for four more years. In Little Women, the characters on the home front are so removed and sheltered from the war that the story could be feasibly occur out of that historical context; for readers raised on Louisa May Alcott, March finally makes a tangible connection to it.

Back when I was read all of Connie Willis' books because she was a female sci-fi writer, I intended to also read Octavia Butler. I finally got around to reading Kindred, and by a total coincidence it had much the same subject matter as March.

An African-American woman in 1976 is repeatedly "called" back to the antebellum South by one of her ancestors, a slave owner. Without knowing when she'll go back and forth between time periods, she becomes more paranoid in the modern world as her encounters in the 19th century become increasingly violent. What starts as meeting her ancestor when he was a small child slowly turns into watching him learn cruelty and how to be the master of a plantation. Kindred is incredibly well-written; I had to read it in one sitting, into the wee hours of the morning, because I couldn't put it down.

The book ends so disturbingly and violently. With no neat resolution, the reader is left to wonder about the symbolism: is the America celebrating its bicentennial trying to reconcile with its past? Is the woman called back specifically because she's in an interracial marriage in the 1970s? The whole story is a jumble of emotions, but in ways that are more thought-provoking than merely shock-inducing.

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