William Tecumseh Sherman’s legendary “march” (1864–65) through Georgia and the Carolinas—toward Appomattox, and victory—is the subject of Doctorow’s panoramic tenth novel.
As he did in his classic Ragtime (1991), Doctorow juxtaposes grand historical events with the lives of people caught up in them—here, nearly two dozen Union and Confederate soldiers and officers and support personnel; plantation owners and their families; and freed slaves unsure where their futures lie. The story begins in Georgia, where John Jameson’s homestead “Fieldstone” becomes a casualty of Sherman’s “scorched earth” tactics (earlier applied during the destruction of Atlanta). The narrative expands as Sherman moves north, adding characters and subtly entwining their destinies with that of the nation. Emily Thompson, daughter of a Georgia Chief Justice, finds her calling as a battlefield nurse working alongside Union Army surgeon Wrede Sartorius (who’ll later be reassigned to Washington, where an incident at Ford’s Theater demands his services). “Rebel” soldiers Will Kirkland and Arly Wilcox move duplicitously from one army to another, and the Falstaffian pragmatist Arly later courts survival by usurping the identity of a battlefield photographer. John Jameson’s “white Negro” bastard daughter Pearl becomes her former mistress’s keeper—and the last best hope for melancholy “replacement” northern soldier Stephen Walsh. Sherman’s war-loving subordinate Justin “Kil” Kilpatrick blithely rapes and loots, finding a boy’s excitement in bloody exigencies. There’s even a brief appearance by indignantly independent black “Coalhouse” Walker (a graceful nod to the aforementioned Ragtime). Doctorow patiently weaves these and several other stories together, while presenting military strategies (e.g., the “vise” formed by Sherman’s gradual meeting with Grant’s Army) with exemplary clarity. Behind it all stalks the brilliant, conflicted, “volatile” Sherman, to whom Doctorow gives this stunning climactic statement: “our civil war . . . is but a war after a war, a war before a war.”
Doctorow’s previous novels have earned multiple major literary awards. The March should do so as well.