Historical novel filters Sherman’s infamous Civil War campaign through numerous perspectives
Concerning itself with the events surrounding General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea, which buried “an axe in the Southern heart” and helped ensure the Union’s victory, E.L. Doctorow’s 11th novel is a patchwork quilt of overlapping narratives, stitched together by a sure hand.
The March uses a multitude of perspectives to explore the military campaign, shifting point of view fluidly across an admirably wide range of characters: shell-shocked widows, dispossessed daughters, battle-weary soldiers and medics, and a few of the thousands of freed slaves who follow the marching blue uniforms. Even Sherman joins the large cast, commanding his forces from a pony mount and grieving for a lost child.
Best known for historical novels like Billy Bathgate and Ragtime, Doctorow maintains strict control over all the precise period details and calamitous goings-on, even as he creates an atmosphere in which absolutely nothing seems controllable; it’s as if the particulars of the march are outside the powers of its participants and its driving Union general, even outside the wills of God and author. Conflicts cease abruptly and often without resolution, and characters both major and minor fall away from the march’s forward movement.
It’s hard to imagine Sherman’s tale being told any other way.