Recently, the Civil War has been the subject of novels by Howard Bahr, Michael Shaara, Charles Frazier, and Robert Hicks, to name a few. Its perennial appeal is due not only to the fact that it was fought on our own soil, but also that it captures perfectly our long-time and ongoing ambivalence about race. Doctorow examines this question extensively, chronicling the dislocation of both southern whites and Negroes as Sherman burned and destroyed all that they had ever known. Sherman is a well-drawn character, pictured as a crazy tactical genius pitted against his West Point counterparts. Doctorow creates a context for the march: "The brutal romance of war was still possible in the taking of spoils. Each town the army overran was a prize... There was something undeniably classical about it, for how else did the armies of Greece and Rome supply themselves?"
The characters depicted on the march are those people high and low, white and black, whose lives are forever changed by war: Pearl, the newly free daughter of a white plantation owner and one of his slaves, Colonel Sartorius, a competent, remote, almost robotic surgeon; several officers, both Union and Confederate; two soldiers, Arly and Will, who provide comic relief in the manner of Shakespeare's fools until, suddenly, their roles are not funny anymore.
Doctorow has captured the madness of war in his description of the condition of a dispossessed Southern white woman: "What was clear at this moment was that Mattie Jameson's mental state befitted the situation in which she found herself. The world at war had risen to her affliction and made it indistinguishable." And later, " This was not war as adventure, nor war for a solemn cause, it was war at its purest, a mindless mass rage severed from any cause, ideal, or moral principle."
As we have come to expect, Doctorow puts the reader in the picture; never more so than in recalling "The March" and letting us see it as a cautionary tale for our times. --Valerie Ryan