March, the title of an historical novel, first published in 2005, perplexed this reader. How was it used, as a verb, as a noun? It affords no clues to the story within its pages.

Soon we learn that author Geraldine Brooks, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, adopted the surname, March from Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Little Women (1868) and spun a companion tale about the absent father, Mr. March.

Abolitionist fever had already insinuated itself into this Concord, MA town, awash with intellectuals. Swayed by John Brown’s rhetoric, Mr. March depleted his savings, amassed through investments in Naugatuck factories and the silver market, thereby impoverishing his wife, Marmee and four daughters.

Already thirty-nine years old, still inflated by his theological studies and followers in Concord, Mr. March sought involvement in still another cause — the Civil War, estimated to last a few months by President Lincoln. On to the bloody battlefields in Virginia he went, comforting Union troops, and later to teaching freed slaves on a southern plantation commandeered by the North. Immediately, the agonizing plight of the wounded and dying; the atrocities and crass prejudice foisted upon the freed Negroes, the contraband of war; and the inept leadership among the generals, crashed upon him, not without almost losing his life to “bilious fever and pneumonia.”

Despite the disgust of his military superiors, his cowardice in tight places, his ineffective ministry, March did not flinch from the needy surrounding him, both white and Negroes alike. In this was his gradual transformation, not without the wisdom and compassion and daring of three women: his wife Marmee, practical and opinionated; his first love, Grace Clement, a tall handsome mulato he met while peddling wares on Virginia plantations as a teenager; and the mute slave, Zannah who saved his life.

Broken, still haunted by ghosts from murderous skirmishes, Mr. March returned to his family’s “little brown house” in Concord to convalesce. Made uneasy by the loving chatter of Marmee, his daughters, Meg, Amy, Jo and Beth in their Christmas parlor, he listens.

Thus Geraldine Brooks brought to a close her historical novel, March. It left me wondering about similar family reunions, following wars in distant lands. How obliterating cultures, killing and maiming, sustaining wounds, both physically and psychically, impact trained soldiers, sent to the fray midst empty aplomb.

To bring all this close to home, I need only look down my court. Five years ago, Ben, then fifteen with pimples and braces, used to cut my grass during hot summers. His willingness touched me, a willingness that imported the usual life path: more education, career, marriage. But in November 2009, all that changed. Ben began training at the Marine Corps Base Camp at Fort Pendleton, CA, returning home on periodic leaves. No longer an adolescent, he’d taken on the identity of a Marine, a strong man, and he couldn’t be prouder, his parents and sister, as well. Further training introduced him to the history, the culture, the terrain, the language, of Afghanistan.

In March 2011, now Lance Corporal Ben, he was deployed there for a seven-months tour of duty with his unit; with them, he goes out on “patrols.” That’s all we hear. His enthusiastic, “I’ll see you at Christmas!” still carries hope of some kind.

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