Book review: The March by E.L. Doctorow

I’m not sure what stirred me to choose this as my introduction to Doctorow, but it was an excellent decision.   It probably had something to do with my interest in the Civil War, and in that context, this was a very satisfying look at the effect of the war on individual lives in its waning months.  I love it when I come across a book that combines a lyrical prose style with an engrossing plot, and that certainly is the situation with The March. It has the additional attraction of accurate historical detail in the description of real historical characters, like William Sherman and even Grant or Lincoln, all of whom I’ve read enough about to have a reasonable picture of their characteristics and personalities beyond the surface of routine historical review, and historical events like specific battles and battle plans.

Doctorow comes at the war’s conclusion from several vantage points.  One is that of a young slave woman who is freed as a result of Sherman’s siege of Atlanta and who, thanks at first to a trick of disguise aided by her youth and white complexion, becomes attached to a medical unit traveling through Georgia and the Carolinas with Sherman.  Another is that of a couple of lowlife southern rebels who escape execution for military lapses (like falling asleep on guard duty) when the rebel generals, desperate for fighting men, offer them a deal that leads them into a battle, whose end result for them is also a disguise, as they find themselves masquerading as Union soldiers. The third is that of Sherman himself as he directs his troops along the long march to the end of the war. Yet another follows the troop through the eyes of a Southern belle whose family and plantation are destroyed and who herself winds up as an aid in Sherman’s medical corps.

In each case, Doctorow paints a vivid and realistic portrait of the human responses to the unnatural, inhuman and devastating events of war.  From their behaviors to their various dialects of English, the individuals are uncannily well drawn.  Interestingly, while there are good people and bad in the story, and while each individual can exhibit traits that are appealing and traits that are unappealing, there are few actual heroes or pure villains.  One of the masquerading Union soldiers proves to be a particularly disgusting piece of human flotsam, and a physician in the medical contingent demonstrates unusual dedication and competence.

Finally, as he describes the conclusion of the war, Doctorow blends all these human stories into the context of the larger historical scope of this human drama.  At once, you follow individual human lives and the broad sweep of national events.  In that sense, it is much like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or to cite a particular favorite of mine Herman Wouk’s Winds of War/War and Remembrance. In short, The March was a richly satisfying introduction to Doctorow.  I’m not sure what of his I’ll pick up next, but I look forward to whatever it is.