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Doctorow Probes the Human Side of a Savage War in `The March'

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"The March" by E.L. Doctorow; Random House ($29.95)


More than any contemporary writer, E.L. Doctorow keeps alive the historical novel as a mode of serious literary expression. While many novelists make the occasional foray into historical fiction - Philip Roth, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates among them - Doctorow returns to it again and again. The other writers of prominence, outside the genres, of course, who have consistently plowed the fields of history, Gore Vidal and Larry McMurtry, can also be read with pleasure, although it must be said that the characters in Vidal's novels sooner or later all start to sound like Gore Vidal, while McMurtry, a master at conveying the tone of bygone times, does not approach Doctorow as a careful stylist.

Doctorow's output has not been without its ups and downs, but unevenness is to be expected from an author who continually challenges himself. His first novel, the spaghetti western "Welcome to Hard Times," holds up well. "Ragtime," the novel that made him famous, is worthwhile despite being a bit mannered and self-conscious, while "Billy Bathgate," a gangster novel of the 1930s, might be his best if not for a sentimental ending. "The Waterworks," Doctorow's least satisfying book, is nonetheless a daring experiment that crosses a Gilded Age murder mystery with morbid fantasy - or postmodernism, if you prefer. This is but a partial list of his output.

Doctorow's latest, "The March," will appeal even to that portion of the population that does not find the Civil War, as so many do, a matter of endless fascination. The novel picks up Sherman's army after the burning of Atlanta, usually considered the climax of the campaign, and follows it through the surrender of Savannah, the turn into South and North Carolina and on to the end of the war. This clever choice not only keeps the narrative to a manageable length, but also highlights the less-well-known leg of Sherman's March - a river of 90,000 Union soldiers flooding across the heart of Dixie, eating, burning, raping or killing almost everything in its path.

As with "Ragtime," Doctorow mingles fictional characters with real ones to fine effect, setting small personal stories against big historic events. Some might take issue with the lack of a plot line and the absence of a central character, but the nature of Sherman's march fairly demands the picaresque; that is to say, a rambling narrative structured upon travel. There are simply too many lives here being ruined or reborn for any of them to dominate the narrative in a conventional way. And, this being war, some people, no matter how much we may like them, simply get killed.

Still, some characters stand out by virtue of surviving long enough for us to care about them. Chief among these is Dr. Wrede Sartorious, an Army surgeon of uncommon skill whose single-minded devotion to work costs him the love of Emily Thompson, a well-born Southerner who mistakes his distraction for indifference. Pearl, a "white Negro," is the daughter of a plantation owner who winds up taking care of her former mistress while cultivating the affections of a young Union soldier. A pair of opportunistic Rebels switch sides as the chance of survival moves them, but while they may offer comic relief, their allegiance to the Southern cause never wavers and, like snakes underfoot, they prove capable of striking blindly at the least expected moment.

Dazzling set pieces provide Doctorow opportunities to show what the war meant to civilians and soldiers alike. Foraging Northern soldiers, taking provisions and freeing slaves, gang rape the plantation owner's wife at the last provocation. The burning of Columbia, S.C., is the more awful because Sherman, after negotiating with town fathers, means to spare most of it, but drunken soldiers riot through the city, taking black and white women without discrimination, setting fires helter-skelter.

Doctorow's ability to imbue all the characters, real and fictional, with emotional and psychological depth is the signal attribute of the book. Sherman is a gruff, confident commander given to moodiness and doubt and horrific mistakes of military judgment. Equally human, if less savory, is Gen. Kil Kilpatrick, a Union officer who views the war as his personal opportunity to steal, kill and waste any number of lives, Northern or Southern, in the pursuit of these interests.

"The March" may lack plot, but it does muster a unifying theme. The American Civil War was the first modern conflict, its bloody battles presaging the horrors of the 20th century. By erasing the line between combatants and noncombatants, Sherman's march exemplified this advance into savagery.

As with all of Doctorow's best work, "The March" is an exemplary piece of craftsmanship, making a complicated narrative strategy look easy. In the process, he finds the humanity in the most dehumanizing circumstances imaginable, performing the magic of reuniting us with our bloody-handed forebears.


(c) 2005 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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