#56 – March by Geraldine Brooks (2006): The Road Yes Travelled

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

Crossing a river in Thorsmark. Seatbelts optional.

Crossing a river in Thorsmark. Seatbelts optional.

In the middle of February, I found myself in a snowstorm in Iceland with my son Sam. We were in a jeep preparing to cross what appeared to me to be a very large and uncrossable river, when we had the following conversation with our guide.

GUIDE: I think this should work.

ME: You think?

GUIDE: (ignoring me) We should take off our seatbelts though.

ME: Why?

GUIDE: In case we need to get out of the car it’s one less thing to worry about.

ME: Just so I’m clear, what we’re going to do is so dangerous that we’re actually better off taking our seatbelts off?

GUIDE: That’s fair. But if we need to get out, don’t panic.

So how did I end up in a jeep in Iceland, in winter, in a snowstorm, agreeing to cross a freezing river without a seatbelt without panicking? A fine question, but maybe we should just start with this.

IMG_2284

This doesn’t make me happy. At all. And if you’ve been on the Internet in the past few weeks, you understand why. If you don’t know what those little yellow tags are, let me explain. Microsoft’s newest analysis tool – How-Old.net – has become the latest Internet craze. The tool allows you to upload a photo of yourself and wait for the program to detect your face. It will then guess your gender and age. I couldn’t wait to try it. I look good for my age, right?

Wrong. Whatever algorithm Microsoft is using hates me. And trust me, it wasn’t just the one picture above. As soon as I got one response, I began frantically flipping through my camera roll uploading shots that I assumed made me look if not young, at least younger. Although I succeeded in moving the needle a few years, it never ever said I looked younger than my actual age which, for the record Microsoft, IS NOWHERE NEAR 60! (And also for the record, I am yelling).

I’m sure I’m not alone and How-old.net has undoubtedly led to a spike in eye cream sales, but this is really torture for me. I have an acute sensitivity to the passage of time. Or more specifically, my passage of time. Some call this a mid-life crisis, but “crisis” seems both too short in duration and unnecessarily negative. My mid-life crisis and I have been together for years now, and for the most part, we co-exist rather well.

Sure, I’ve had some clichéd mid-life crisis-like moments – like my nonsensical yet very real desire to buy a motorcycle – but mostly my crisis and I have a very symbiotic relationship. Like a barnacle and a whale. Or the Internet and Kim Kardashian. In its simplest form, my fear of growing old has freed me (or prompted me) to do more stuff. I say “yes” to more things. And at the top of this list of stuff I say yes to is travel.

And in their relatively short lives, I’ve tried to pass this “just say yes, especially to travel” attitude down to Sam and Lily (and even, to a lesser extent due to her lesser years, Macy) and they have already seen a fair share of the world. We’ve been to New York, Washington D.C., London, Paris, Seoul, Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague. We ventured to western Pennsylvania to see Hershey and Gettysburg. We’ve camped in the Grand Canyon and stayed at the Madonna Inn, and traveled by car, plane, train, subway, helicopter, boat and funicular. To continue to promote this attitude and foster a love of travel and exploration as the bigger kids move toward teendom, I’m always asking them where in the world they would most like to go next. They know that, chances are, I will say yes to whatever they come up with. So it wasn’t a total surprise that one day last summer my then 13-year-old Sam said to me while shooting hoops:

SAM: Dad, I’ve got two ideas for where to go.

ME: Excellent. Let’s hear.

SAM: First, I want to go see the Aurora Borealis.

ME: That sounds cool. But where actually do we go to see it?

SAM: You can go pretty much anywhere up by the Arctic Circle, but I think the best place is in Iceland.

Randomly enough, I spent two weeks on a backpacking trip in Iceland right before Sam was born so I’m about to sound knowledgeable and cool.

ME: Iceland is great. And super nice in the summer.

SAM: (looking at me like I’m a moron) “Uh, here’s the deal. You can’t go in the summer BECAUSE THE SUN’S OUT ALL THE TIME.”

He didn’t actually yell but I could tell that he was explaining this to me slowly BECAUSE I’M A MORON.

SAM: You need to go in mid to late winter.

ME: Just so I’ve got this straight, you want to go to Iceland in the middle of winter?

SAM: February would be best.

It sounded cold. And not in the Aspen or Chamonix sense. This was going to require a new wardrobe. But as a parent you need to walk the walk so I aimed to be supportive while also maximizing my optionality. I needed to say “yes.”

ME: Okay, what’s your second idea?

SAM: Have you ever heard of this thing called Burning Man?

ME: (Missing shot wildly). I have. Have you?

SAM: Yeah. I want to do that.

I’m not sure what bucket list he was “researching” on the Internet, but he was fully brushed up on the ins and outs of the Burn.

SAM: This year’s theme is the Silk Road. (They have a theme, I thought to myself.) I read the whole kids guide to Burning Man. You know though, we missed it by a year. Kids under 12 go for free.

My inner voice was saying “that’s because kids under 12 shouldn’t be going to Burning Man!! Kids under 12 should cost like $20,000!!” But all I said was…

ME: I guess we’re going to Iceland.

So that’s how Sam and I ended up visiting the Gullfoss Waterfall, driving a jeep through a river in Thorsmork, taking selfies with Icelandic horses, climbing on a glacier covered volcano, and yes, seeing the Aurora Borealis. And to anyone who asks how the trip was, I tell them Iceland in February isn’t for everyone. You’re not drinking margaritas on the beach or working on your golf game or getting a facial. But it was an adventure, and it was cool (literally and figuratively), and it was an experience we’ll never ever forget. It’s what happens when you say “yes.”

Gullfoss waterfall.

Gullfoss waterfall.

Which leads me (finally) to March by Geraldine Brooks, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize. March tells the previously untold story of the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. For those of you that haven’t read Little Women (a group to which I belong), the reader only gets to know Peter March through his letters sent home to his family from the Civil War. Brooks uses March to tell not only of Mr. March’s time in the war that changed him both physically and mentally, but also of his early life as a traveling salesman, of his first kiss, of the meeting of his wife, of his connections to Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau (he’s like a Civil War era Forrest Gump), of his strong abolitionist sentiments, and of misunderstandings and wrongs that were never made right in his life.

In many ways, March stands apart from the other books we’ve ranked so far at Pulitzer Schulitzer! in that it is very readable. It isn’t poorly written (Guard of Honor), over-flowery and rambling (A Fable), drug-trippy weird (House Made of Dawn), or boring (Martin Dressler). It’s conceptually interesting, at least for those who read Little Women. Brooks is a fine writer and the story moves forward quickly and easily and I had no trouble finishing it. The two main issues I have with March are (a) it is somewhat clichéd like the middle-aged guy wanting to buy a motorcycle; and (b) I don’t love the protagonist.

Brooks paints Peter March as a vegetarian, Unitarian, abolitionist, transcendentalist, book-lover from the North. In other words, he’s one huge cliché that, frankly, probably did not exist during the Civil War. But clichés by themselves (and in moderation as we’ll see later) are not unlikeable and if that were the only issue I had with Mr. March, I’m sure we’d be ok. The bigger problem with March the character – and hence March the book – is that he isn’t a person who says “yes.”

The glacier at Eyjafjallajokull.

The glacier at Eyjafjallajokull.

He hates war and he hates slavery (not a unique opinion by any means) but his actions in opposition to both are more whiny than productive. March is constantly struggling with an overly simplistic inner battle: “War is bad! But slavery is also bad! So is war to stop slavery good?” I get it. But March makes little effort to affirmatively resolve this turmoil and instead of trying to change the world, lets the world change him. And most of the time, he does this in a negative way to both himself and those around him. March is a “no” guy.

In fact, March is not only a “no” guy, but he also tends to project that trait on others, even those he loves. For example, March is very jealous of his wife’s admiration for John Brown (one more famous person that they happen to know): ”I could see that Brown ignited the very part of my wife’s spirit I wished to quench; the lawless, gypsy elements of her nature.” People looking to quench other people’s spirits in any way make me mad. Like Microsoft.

I fear I’m piling on a little right now, but I’m on a roll. Not only is the book an oversimplification of war in general, but in telling the story it employs every cliché civil war plot twist: (1) interracial romance; (2) old urbane southern woman with power; (3) bloody field hospitals; (4) inverted moral systems; (5) corrupt preachers; (6) the use of the terms “rod” and “score” to measure distance and time; (7) a well-stocked plantation library; (8) gorgeous, educated slave women who turn out to be of mixed blood; (9) the senseless suffering of women and children at the home front; and (10) southern families torn apart by Visigothic Union soldiers who smash grand pianos.

Black sand beach on the south coast.

Black sand beach on the south coast.

Although I’m already feeling a little bad about critiquing this book possibly more harshly than I should, I must add that there are more than a couple cringe inducing sentences. I’ll give two quick examples. First, when March sleeps with Marmee for the first time in the woods with unwitting musical accompaniment from Thoreau: ”We married each other that night, there on a bed of fallen pine needles — even today, the scent of pitch pine stirs me — with Henry’s distant flute for a wedding march and the arching white birch boughs for our basilica.” I have two things to say. One, it sounds uncomfortable. Two, his pine needle fetish is just…ew.

The second example sums up March in a nutshell for me. Throughout the story, March’s path crosses several times with Grace, a beautiful, ”astonishingly eloquent” slave who March (not surprisingly) falls for. Their last meeting occurs in a Washington hospital after March has been sickened with fever and grazed by a rebel bullet, and Grace shows up talking like a double major in civics and psychology: ”He loves, perhaps, an idea of me: Africa, liberated. I represent certain things to him, a past he would reshape if he could, a hope of a future he yearns toward.”

In the end, although I’m harsh, you should take my words with a grain of salt. Others that I know really liked this book, and I was excited to read it as well so there is the possibility that I simply set the bar too high. Or possibly I just wrote this while I’m still pissed off at Microsoft. Maybe trying how-old.net was the one thing I should’ve said no to. But after reading March, I am even more likely to say yes to things. So pass me the eye cream. I’ve got places to go.

Icelandic horse selfies.

Icelandic horse selfies.

2 comments

  1. Your blog is compelling. Fresh, energetic and funny. So excited when I get the post.
    I sent a current picture of myself in ballet class to How-old and they guessed my age at 30.
    Hmmmmm. Tried to send you picture through GiGi but I don’t think they forward them…
    Keep writing John it’s timeless.

  2. Thank you Jackie! And I’m so jealous that how-old.net loves you more than me! But I’m not surprised – you look way younger than I do for sure.

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