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'The March' strides into history

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To a disturbing degree, Margaret Mitchell has shaped the popular conception of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's famous march through the South during the Civil War. In Gone with the Wind, the march is seen solely through the eyes of plantation owners.

In his brilliant new novel, The March, E.L. Doctorow reworks the Mitchell myth. He makes it more frightening, more destructive, more triumphant, more liberating and far more historically accurate.

This turbulent period of social upheaval in American history gives Doctorow an opportunity to explore the most painful questions in American history: slavery, racism, the forbidden topic of children born to slave mothers and white owners, freedom, courage, the blood thrill of war, the collapse of social structures and the fate of the poor, the sick and the old who are left in the wreckage.

And although The March is set in 1864, the questions will resonate with modern readers still reeling from the crisis in New Orleans.

As shown in earlier novels such as Ragtime, Doctorow masterfully weaves together historical figures with imagined ones.

Among the most memorable of those fictional creations in The March is Pearl Jameson, a pale-skinned slave girl whose father is her owner. Through her, Doctorow conveys all the twisted emotional/sexual wounds that slavery introduced to the Southern psyche, black and white.

Pearl's white half-brothers, the two sons of the plantation, lust like animals for their biracial half-sister. The boys' mother can't stand this living, breathing proof of her husband's infidelity, the other slaves resent Pearl, and her father abandons her to Sherman's army. Toughened from birth because of her difficult life, Pearl has a survivor's relentlessness.

Doctorow is equally effective in portraying Sherman, one of history's originals. Dynamic, emotional, manic in his mood swings, the general is depicted as an egotist capable of ruthless brutality, brilliant logic and surprising gentleness.

The March brims with other remarkable characters: Arly, a clever Confederate survivor whose philosophy of life is, by turns, comic, romantic and savage; a German-born Union surgeon who correctly if coldly realizes that the battlefield carnage provides an opportunity to advance medicine; and an aristocratic Southern woman who is appalled by the sheer waste wreaked by men on both sides.

There is also a clear-eyed woman, a freed slave, who wisely fears that the promised 40 acres won't materialize, and an English journalist who articulates why the Civil War is and remains the most moving and terrible chapter in U.S. history.

For the many Americans who want to understand this profound experience that continues to shape our attitudes and actions today, The March offers stunning insight.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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