The leanness of E.L. Doctorow's Civil War novel The March takes some getting used to, given that the book often strains to be more epic than its 360-page container will allow. Doctorow loosely follows Civil War General William T. Sherman on his devastating march through Georgia and his lesser-known trek up through the Carolinas; as The March whips through the final year of one of the bloodiest, most divisive wars in human history, characters both historical and fictional drift in and out. Some stay for the duration, and some depart before readers really get to know them. This isn't one of those sprawling, multi-part books where everybody has a rich backstory and a neat arc to follow. The March is messy, relentless, and essentially unchanging. It begins in chaos, and ends with the chaos momentarily abated.
A few stories get told along the way. In addition to the neurotic Sherman, Doctorow concocts a cast of freed slaves, homeless Southern aristocrats, runaway soldiers, bemused journalists, and ice-veined battlefield surgeons. But he's less interested in where they come from and where they end up than in what they do while civilization collapses around them. Much of The March is about people assessing situations and deciding to go with the flow, even if that means completely abandoning the ideals that got them into the war in the first place. Doctorow expertly contrasts the detached military decorum of the West Point-trained generals on both sides with the ever-shifting hopes of the civilians and soldiers who join the march, praying for safety and a head start on a prosperous post-war life. But first, both classes need to get over their habit of getting drunk and burning things.
Out of all The March's mayhem emerges a portrait of America that's both as subtle as Doctorow's prose and as penetrating as the metal spike that gets stuck in one character's head. The author is so assured that he can introduce the spiked soldier midway through the book, then gradually reveal him as a metaphor for a country at war with itself. Will he survive? Should he survive? Perhaps the reason why Doctorow doesn't spend much time fleshing out these characters is that they're all metaphors for the American nature, in all its ingenuity and upset. While charging through history, Doctorow pauses only to consider the displaced, who treat government-ordered liberation as a binding contract. What's to be done with them, who cling to our armies like ash?