Scary stories from a lovely place
They are coming, they are marching. It is an army of wild dogs led by this apostate, this hideous wretch, this devil who will drink your tea and bow before he takes everything from you. (p4)
Thus reads the beginning of E.L Doctorow’s ‘The March’, a disjointed but altogether amazing book about set in 1864 at the tail end of the American Civil War.
Doctorow’s scope is mammoth. General Sherman, as described above, is only one character of a host, ranging from beatnik soldiers and slaves, to President Lincoln himself. Doctorow introduces multiple characters who then die bloodily a few pages later, or who the reader hopes will die at each twist and turn, so despicable are their actions.
And then there are those who carry the bulk of the story, like Pearl, a teenage slave girl and Emily Thompson the daughter of a prominent Southern judge who hooks up with a Union army doctor. This relationship allows Doctorow’s dual perspective of both sides of the war. While his sensibilities rest subtly with the Union side, he seems to feel empathy for both as a reflection on the contradictory brutality of civil war.
Doctorow places special emphasis in the story on freedom, particularly that of slaves and women. The crux of the war is of course the emancipation of slaves whose traclucent treatment is written with searing clarity. Even so, this seems to stand as secondary to freedom for women. But this is dichotomous as historically war is a time when neglect and abuse of women increases. This was a significant lacunae in the narrative. There are allusions to rape and abuse, but Doctorow does idealise the experience of women. The examples he gives are lingeringly non-abusive.
Like for Emily Thompson, the upperclass daughter of a Southern judge who joins the march when her home and town are overrun. She joins the Union Army’s medical division in passive pursuit of the enigmatic European doctor, Wrede Sartorius. In no romantic terms Doctorow describes Emily’s experience of their relationship as being “inhabited” (p145). Before they sleep together Sartorius incises Emily’s hymen with a scalpel, telling her “I will do this small procedure.” (p145). It’s a bizarre moment in the story, and something I have never seen before in all my reading. Needless to say, Emily leaves Sartorius and finally finds emancipation from the shadow of men in her life.
The other key figure in the story is the curious Pearl. She is a shapeshifter. It’s her white skin and ability to pretend she is a boy that allows her to experience different aspects of the march. Reviews consider her to be mixed race in appearance, which concurs with the fact of her black mother and plantation owning white father. But I think Doctorow is being more dramatic even than this and Pearl is actually an Albino. Doctorow describes her skin as like white chocolate and even the name ‘Pearl’ references the kind of transluscent, glowing skin that is unique to a person with Albinism. She’s not just fair skinned, she’s whiter than white.
This would make more sense of Pearl’s ambivalent place in the slave community. After the intense tumult of the Civil War new communities were established and the meanings of black and white in the USA forever changed. Pearl stands apart from this change. This is evidenced in her friendship with David, an orphaned slave boy who eventually leaves Pearl for other freedmen who are more like himself.
In the end she belongs with the articulate and peaceful Stephen Walsh, an Irishman. Walsh tells Pearl that David needs to be with negroes, to which Pearl asserts her racial identity, “I’m a negro! Stephen shook his head. No, Pearl, with skin as white as a carnation, not in that boy’s eyes”. Walsh explains to Pearl that “nothing stays the same”. The March has turned their lives upside down and in on themselves.
Despite their obvious affinity, Pearl feels smothered by Stephen Walsh and thus Doctorow salutes the theory of the double colonisation of women. Essentially, it is both men and the system who oppress women’s lives. At the close of the story Pearl stays with Stephen Walsh but their future is ambiguous because of the implications of this double colonisation. In the new America the teenage Pearl and the Irish Stephen Walsh need each other.
Despite the ‘happy ending’ of Pearl and Walsh riding off into the sunset, ‘The March’ charts the gore and grit of war. Doctorow plots for the reader the necessity of war to wrangle the kind of deep and profound freedom that Pearl needs, even while it gratuitously displays how fracturing it is to a nation.
Even as the old communities are trodden down, burnt and torn apart, new ones are forged. They are frankenstinian in their make up – white and black, rich and poor. Even people from the different sides must work together when caring for the wounded is at the fore. There is a scene where Sartorius’ mobile hospital is taken by opposing soldiers. Embarrassed by their role, the guards end up comforting enemy soldiers and mopping up their blood. This too is where civil war is unique, both sides speak the same language and essentially have the same history, even while it varies by shades. All must come together under a new historical narrative.
Doctorow doesn’t seem to stand in criticism of war, as a pacifist, rather by invoking historical semiotics he presents the good that can be won through war, even while so much is lost.