In Which Our Heroine Marches On

9 January 2005

I've been sick for the last few days, not deathly ill, just feeling nasty. I expect to be better tomorrow. I expected to be better today, but this time I mean it, dammit. I have stuff to do tomorrow. I mean other than reading, which is what I've been doing for the last few days. Not that I intend to stop reading, you understand. But still.

This afternoon I read Geraldine Brooks's March, which is supposed to be "filling in the gaps," telling the story of the father from Little Women. For those of you who haven't read Little Women or haven't read it recently, Mr. March spends the whole of the book off at the Civil War and only appears in references or letters, not "on stage," until the very end. (This is the very end of the book Little Women. It gets confusing because sometimes things are called Little Women that are actually omnibuses of Little Women and Good Wives. This is my least favorite method of giving titles to omnibuses.)

My first complaint with March is that I think if you're going to write "in the gaps" of another, more famous story, you need to actually work within the framework of that story. Assuming fibs in the authorial voice or just ignoring details provided in the authorial voice seems like extremely bad form, and if you don't want to work with what's actually in the original text, why are you doing it that way anyway? Why not do a related work and have the freedom to chuck bits of it as you please? That's an old and respected solution to this problem! So I can see where Brooks might have gotten excited reading about Bronson Alcott and his kindred spirits, but when a detail she really loved from, say, Alcott's life contradicts stuff in the books about Mr. March, I really think she should have either gone with the books or decided to come out with it and write a biography of Bronson Alcott. Or even a fictionalized biography of Bronson Alcott, for heaven's sake.

A minor point, for example: yes, Bronson Alcott was an extreme vegetarian. ("Extreme": he didn't even allow for the killing of insect pests in the orchard, ruining a fruit crop, or for using manure to fertilize, since it "belonged" to the animals who had produced it.) But we know that whatever Alcott's feelings on the matter were, March and his family ate meat and fish and eggs and milk and butter. Amy is advised to have chicken salad for a party for her classmates, and there are more examples of people drinking milk or eating milk with their porridge or cooking custards than I care to sit down and count right now. So while Alcott may have been a vegetarian, March was not. I don't care how charming an historical tidbit is or how juicy a bit of character development, if it directly contradicts the events of the story you're supposed to be working around, don't put it in there.

If you're not willing to work within the limits of the original story, I think what you have is less part of a literary conversation and more a cynical marketing device. "I don't think anyone will want to read my novel about a Transcendentalist who only Transcendents when convenient, especially as it has a tacked-on POV shift in the last section and a totally unsatisfying ending. I know! I'll link it to a beloved children's classic! That'll fix everything! And then the fact that I can't figure out an ending will just mean that the original book ended there, albeit with a good deal more closure!"


Glad I read it, though. I am an amiable reader, as I've said before and will likely say again. Not uncritical, but amiable. I'm now reading Janis Ian's Stars anthology, SF and fantasy inspired by her songs. (Not, as the cover says, based on her songs. Because there's really only so far to go with that.) I was extremely charmed to find out that Janis Ian was One Of Us, and that she'd grown up to have way more of a sense of humor than "Society's Child" would have indicated. This world we live in: it's a pretty neat place sometimes. Even though it does contain viruses.

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