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By E.L. Doctorow
363 pages. $25.95. Random House.
Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani
'War is hell," William Tecumseh Sherman famously observed. Sherman was in a position to know. An unforgiving advocate of "total war," he marched his Union Army through the heart of Georgia, torched Atlanta, then turned southeast to the sea, cutting a path of destruction hundreds of miles long. He reached Savannah by December 1864, presenting the city as a "Christmas gift" to President Lincoln, then headed north toward the Carolinas. His troops burned and pillaged and looted, destroying railroads, warehouses, factories, plantations and private homes, in an effort to destroy the Southern economy and break the will of the Confederacy.
"War is cruelty," Sherman asserted. "There's no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over."
In his arresting new novel "The March," E.L. Doctorow mixes fact and fiction, real characters and made-up ones, to give the reader a bloody, tactile portrait of Sherman's infamous march and a visceral understanding of the horrors of war. Although the novel is less inventive than his 1975 classic "Ragtime," it showcases the author's bravura storytelling talents and instinctive ability to empathize with his characters.
Some of the wide-angled views of war presented in "The March" will be familiar to fans of "Gone With the Wind": Southern families loading up carts with their most treasured possessions, as they flee the approaching Union Army; dozens upon dozens of dying and wounded soldiers awaiting treatment in hastily improvised field hospitals; flames devouring the cities of the South, as giddy soldiers look on.
By cutting back and forth between various characters' stories, Doctorow shows how that conflagration overturned people's lives, tearing up families and subjecting men, women and children to the cacophonous, centrifugal forces of history.
The two characters with whom Doctorow most clearly sympathizes are Pearl, a teenage former slave, who succeeds in transcending her past through a redemptive act of charity toward her former owners; and Stephen Walsh, an introspective Union soldier who falls in love with her. During the opening salvos of Sherman's march on Georgia, Pearl owes her survival to a series of lucky happenstances: She is adopted by a Yankee soldier, who disguises her as a drummer boy, and she later finds employment as a nurse's aide with a doctor who is operating a field surgery for the Union wounded. Walsh, who received $300 for enlisting in the Union Army, feels only a "grim despair" over what he sees as an "insane war"; his one hope is that he and Pearl will somehow survive the war and figure out a way to invent a new life together.
The most venal aspects of the Union decimation of the South are personified by a lecherous Yankee officer named Kil Kilpatrick, who treats the war as a grand opportunity to loot and womanize, while the professionalism of the military is embodied by a Colonel Teack, who toasts Sherman's tactical brilliance but secretly scorns the general's temperamental excesses.
As for Doctorow's Sherman, he emerges as neither the evil madman, the "Nero of the 19th century" portrayed in Southern mythology, nor the military visionary hailed by some Northerners. Instead, he comes across as a mercurial, hard-charging general, by turns unforgiving and sentimental, savage and ruminative.
In actuality, the central character of this novel is not Sherman, but the army he commands and its inexorable march through Dixie. As the war progresses, the army becomes a force of nature, a swollen tide of locusts devouring anything in its path, only to end, in the final days of the conflict, as a spent and hungry beast.
It is Doctorow's achievement in these pages that in recounting Sherman's march, he manages to weld the personal and the mythic into a thrilling and poignant story. He creates an Iliad-like portrait of war as a primeval human affliction "not war as adventure, nor war for a solemn cause," but "war at its purest, a mindless mass rage severed from any cause, ideal, or moral principle," a "characterless entanglement of brainless forces" as God's answer "to the human presumption."
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