Patience is a virtue with ‘The March’

E.L. Doctorow's latest offering, "The March," requires all the stamina of its title to finish, but the end result is as rewarding to the enduring reader as the rape of the antediluvian South was to General Sherman during the Civil War.

That long, sorrowful stretch of damage and destruction wreaked by Sherman on his March to the Sea from the inland south to Atlantic coast forms the nucleus of the novel's plot. An epic-style work, "The March" is a whirlwind of Union and Confederate sentiments, most of which are interesting, some of which feel like superfluous concessions to the unpopular.

"Whirlwind" is an apt description because "The March" switches characters, scenes and sides faster than any reader could keep up with. Despite Doctorow's frenetic pace, however, several key characters emerge as the most important: Pearl, a slave girl born illegitimately to a slave woman and her owner; Emily Thompson, a disillusioned southern Belle dispossessed of her inheritance; the cold-shouldered Wrede Sartorius, a Union surgeon Emily uneasily attaches herself to; and Arly and Will, two soldiers whose loyalties fall to whichever side is most convenient.

Over the course of the novel, the disparate lives of these characters overlap, come apart, rejoin and dissolve several times over. As previously mentioned, it's difficult to keep track of who has done what and why, especially since Doctorow favors explaining plot developments in reverse. The result is rather like watching a set of beautiful vacation slides out of order. The individual vignettes are often haunting — Emily watches the light of burning buildings dance on the ceiling as she attempts to fall asleep, Will and Arly travel through misty forest strewn with gruesome reminders of previous battles – but the novel's massive scope and tremendous cast make it difficult to place them in order and follow the narrative thread.

Comparisons between "The March" and "Cold Mountain," Charles Frazier's successful novel with a similar Civil War theme, are inevitable. Although themes of love and loss are near impossible to ignore in a novel about war, several characters (especially Thompson and, separately, Will) and situations bear strong similarities to those in "Cold Mountain."

That novel, however, succeeded because it showed how the war intervened in the lives of its characters. "The March" takes a different track and looks at how different characters fall in and out of the war's path. That approach isn't unsuccessful, but it is responsible for the yawning sections of the novel that feel like they've been lifted straight from a history book.

Historical fiction is a tricky genre. Stay true to history too much and you've got a clunker that doesn't sell because it's a history book. Add too much drama (melodrama?) and your work is called apocryphal, to say nothing of maudlin.

Doctorow has a good skeleton of a novel here, but fleshes it out with too much Civil War minutiae. Good thing an attentive reader can cut though that scholarly film and see the solid, moving core of this novel.

Grade: B