The March ~ by E. L. Doctorow (reviewed by John/JD)
A roiling account of the final months of the U.S. Civil War, as General Sherman’s Union army cuts a swathe through Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
About: Sherman famously led his army on a march through the Confederate heartlands, employing a scorched earth strategy - living off the land and the Southern families and leaving behind them a trail of destruction. His “total war” policy was intended to undermine the ability of the Confederacy to continue waging war, and he succeeded. Doctorow’s book is a historic fiction, following “the March” and telling the stories of several (mainly) fictional people who became embroiled in the events.
John’s Thoughts: While Sherman is one of the characters featured, mostly the book looks through the eyes of a range of very different characters – black and white, rich and poor, soldier and civilian, Union and Confederate. Lives and whole social systems are being turned on their heads, and Doctorow recounts the impact of the chaos on individuals; and chaotic it most certainly is.
Rich white people suddenly find themselves dispossessed; black slaves are freed but have no idea what it really means and where they should go; two lowly soldiers defect to the other side almost by accident as they try to avoid a court-martial, and continue to take on new guises; doctors and medical units attached to the army are overwhelmed by a constant stream of the wounded and the sick, dramatically impacting the lives and attitudes of the healers; the armies themselves seem to have a life of their own, often barely controlled by their leaders; and Sherman himself is strategically brilliant but is psychologically unstable.
Through it all Doctorow is very effectively communicating the madness, unpredictability, violence and life-changing impact of war. While there is at least some cautious optimism at the end of the book, this isn’t a story where all loose ends are nicely tied up and everyone lives happily ever after.
While in some places it did feel like a fiction, mostly it had a true-to-life feel about it, and you couldn’t help feeling that you’d experienced something of what the war must have been like. The writing style is a little dense at times (the opening sentence is fifteen lines long), but the more I got into the book the easier it became. Overall, I certainly enjoyed the read. I’d rate the book 3.5 stars.
The copy that John read was found at a junk store in Napa, CA. It was one dollar and it is a first edition (very cool). The cover shown above is from the UK – we tend to like them the best. Besides it matches the blog a bit better!
This book will be part of several challenges – The War Through the Generations, and one or two historical other fiction challenges.
As always John/JD will be responding to any comments around his review. Please don’t forget to check the follow up box to get his reply.
Thanks for reading!