Having never read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, I can’t tell how much more this novel would’ve revealed to me if I had, but I certainly enjoyed it nonetheless.
This is the story of the Little Women’s father, who evidently spent much of that novel away from them, and the things he experienced as a chaplain in the Civil War. It is extremely well researched and authentically written. Told in the first person, the voice is undeniably one of a 19th century abolitionist, and it is rich in the details associated with everyday life in that era. On top of that, it is an engaging and thoughtful narrative, with a main character whom I truly came to care about and think of as a real person.
March struggles through much of the novel, struggles with the slaveholding society he finds himself amidst and struggles with his own feelings of inadequacy and undeserved blessing. Again, I don’t know what kind of novel Little Women is, but I know it is often recommended for young girls, so I speculate that March finds himself dealing with issues that are totally out of the ken of his family back into Concord, New Hampshire. In fact, we see this disconnect very clearly late in the novel when the point of view switches without warning to March’s wife, who comes down to visit her husband in a Washington hospital after he is shot and takes grievously ill. With her husband unconscious, she has to piece together what happened to him and what he has been doing from the few mementos that are still in his possession and from the reluctant lips of a nurse and former slave who knew him from the time before he was married. She jumps to a series of mistaken conclusions, only a few of which are unjustified, but perfectly sensible from the perspective of the world she lives in. The life of an abolitionist in the North is, forgive the pun, much more black and white than the swirling gray mess that war and slavery can cause. March has acted in the best interests of those around him throughout his experience in the war, and has formed loving bonds with several, living and dead, because of the trials they had suffered together. He blames himself for their deaths, and wants to return to the fight in order to have a chance to redeem himself from those miserable failures. His wife understands none of this, and berates him almost savagely, not just for the bonds he had formed while away from her, but even more so for his desire to rekindle them rather than return with her to their family.
In many ways, the scene reminds me of the one in Huckleberry Finn, when Tom Sawyer appears at the end of the novel, playing his usual games and tricks, and Huck is no longer capable of seeing the fun and frivolity in what appears to him to be matters of gravity and importance. In his time away from Tom, Huck has grown out of that childish phase, and in March’s time away from his family, he has grown, too, grown in ways his wife cannot possibly understand.
This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006, and I choose it for that reason. After listening to The Road by Cormac McCarthy (this one was an audiobook, too) I’ve decided to read or listen to all the Pulitzer Prize winning novels. Something tells me I’m going to enjoy them all.