Monday, March 13, 2006

The March

Stumbling across the announcement that E.L. Doctorow's fictional depiction of General William Sherman's March had won this year's PEN/Faulkner Award (in addition to being a finalist for the National Book Award), I realized that I hadn't read much other than fluff lately, and so I decided to read this award-winning novel.

The story begins just after Sherman's Army has defeated Confederate troops in Atlanta, and continues through the end of the Civil War. Rather than focus on a single narrator, Doctorow provides a host of narrators that cover most of the types of people affected by the war. Among the most persistent characters are Pearl, Sherman himself, Emily Thompson, Arly and Will. Pearl is a slave freed at the beginning of the book, biological daughter of the plantation owner and so white that those who don't know her don't realize she's a Negro. Sherman is portrayed as a man determined to win the war, and while he has sympathy for the freed slaves, wants them to quit following his troops, as he has no desire to feed additional mouths that can only slow down his Army. Emily Thompson is a displaced Southern woman who decides to serve as a nurse to a talented Union surgeon. Perhaps the most unusual characters are Arly and Will, two Rebel soldiers who keep switching sides as convenient to save their skins. They provide some sense of comic relief for most of the book, though that changes around the time the Army reaches North Carolina.

Doctorow does an impressive job of telling so many stories, all the while the progress of the March serves almost as another character. We see how the Union Army lived off the land, essentially taking whatever it wanted and laying waste to most everything else. Doctorow also provides one possible interpretation of the burning of Columbia, South Carolina, after the city had surrendered. Throughout the book, death, brought about by both the direct and indirect effects of the war, visits the characters, as would be expected.

For me, the story took a while to get going, likely because the scope of the cast required laying sufficient foundation. Once it got going, however, it zipped along. Given the number of individuals the book keeps track of, it came as a pleasant surprise how easily Doctorow developed the characters, particularly that of Pearl.

I've not read any of Doctorow's earlier works (e.g., Ragtime, City of God and Billy Bathgate), despite their also having received acclaim. I guess I can add them to the neverending to-read list.

Rating: 8/10.