I'm quite a fan of E.L. Doctorow. But I've skirted around 'The March' till the book swap planted it firmly in my hands. I've got no choice but to get down to it. Just as well. This is the year of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. (Refer to The Washington Post's 'A House Divided'.)
Set within the context of the American Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg, and the ultimate abolishment of slavery, 'The March' can be a little heavy if you're not inclined towards novels about war in general.
The novel is based on the infamous or famous 1864-65 march (also known as the Savannah Campaign) of 62,000 soldiers under the command of General William Sherman, through Georgia and then the Carolinas, fighting off Confederate forces, living off the land and pillaging off the Southern plantations. (Read npr's review, and NYT's review here.)
General Sherman's beliefs are elegantly written, "In this war among the states, why should the reason for the fighting count for anything? For if death doesn't matter, why should life matter?" We are also privy to General Sherman's innermost thoughts, presumably gleaned from the author's extensive research. "There is now Savannah to see to. I will invest it and call its surrender. I have a cause. I have a commnad. And what I do I do well. And, God help me, but I am thrilled to be praised by my peers and revered by my countrymen. There are men and nations, there is right and wrong. There is this Union. And it must not fall."
Central to the story, the plot dances around the issue of slavery and how freeing the slaves along the march doesn't necessary mean full emancipation. The standoff between Union soldiers and plantation owners are a point of contention in the sort of justice served. It doesn't mean justice as you and I might think. It's an arbitrary sort of judgment. The fate of Pearl, a light-skinned slave girl, is told and readers are shown how racial lines are still an issue within the ranks.
The book's concluding paragraph reads, "Later, back on the road, the shadows began to lengthen as the afternoon wore on. The green of the land grew softer, and the road, in a slow descent, passed into a valley. And then there was a dark, thick grove of pine where some of the war had passed through. A boot lay in the pine needles, and the shreds of a discolored uniform. Behind a fallen log, a small pile of cartridge shells. There was still a scent of gunfire in the trees, and they were glad to come out into the sun again."
Is the March really for the altruistic greater good? Is it liberation? Truly? What is honor? What is justice? What is freedom? The written records will then point you to President Lincoln's historic Gettysburg Address in November 1963. The socio-political-economic-racial fallout of the war led to the Reconstruction era where attitudes, mindsets and frameworks were thrown into disarray and reshuffled. The chain of events marked the tide and the turning point in nineteenth century America.