2009-07-30 / Opinions

Book Review

The March By E.L. DOCTOROW
Reviewed by PEGGY BARNETT

E.L. Doctorow is a very successful writer who has published many novels and won many awards.

At least three of his books have become films (Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, and Hard Times,) adding to his fame. However, as a native New Yorker, living now on Long Island, it must take a certain amount of courage for him to take on The March of Sherman through Georgia.

Perhaps the rest of the world isn't so familiar with the topic, and over a hundred years have passed, but "folks around here" can still talk about buried silver and burned houses and stolen cows as though it happened yesterday. Resentment of General William Tecumseh Sherman yet runs high.

Doctorow has said that he is interested in how our past is responsible for us as we are now. Most of his novels have been a blend of fact and fiction. The March follows Sherman and those who are swept up in his train. Doctorow invents dialog and thoughts of real people and creates characters who were not there but could have been.

We meet first Mattie Jameson as she and her husband learn that Sherman's army is approaching their plantation. They load a few things and flee, leaving behind Pearl, the daughter of John Jameson and a slave. We meet her again later. In fact, that is Doctorow's narrative style. We gradually meet a large cast of characters as the scenes shift, each story developing in suspended action.

Pearl is befriended by a Yankee lieutenant and leaves the plantation with his party. The next chapter introduces Arly and Will. They are Confederate soldiers, currently in a Confederate jail. Neither is a very good soldier, for different reasons, and they spent the rest of the book in and out of northern and southern uniform.

Emily Thompson, an upper class white woman in Milledgeville, follows the army out of her destroyed city to work with the Union surgeon who has won her admiration. Many other minor characters come and go, absorbing our attention as we hope that they will survive. Many do not, of course, in this account of that dreadful time.

Sherman remains the central focus because his decisions determine what will become of the people, real and imagined. Historical novels, when they are well-written, somehow keep the reader in suspense, even though we know the outcome. In this kind of fictional history, it is the lives of the imagined characters that keep us reading.

The March is well-written and researched, and is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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