This is a historical novel of the Civil War which is so aptly written with rich, vivid descriptions of the South that is taken by Sherman's troops, that I could be there, too. The character development of a huge cast is so memorable and interesting, it is easy to favor them all. Not that they are all nice or good, just so well introduced and evolved throughout the story. Emotions and ethics are written compassionately and poignantly with just the right dash of humor.
I had to refresh myself with the knowledge of who some of the characters were. So, in short, this con is that there were too many characters. In a novel of this magnitude, that is not too bad!
The March , by E.L. Doctorow, highlights General William Tecumseh Sherman's journey as he takes the South with the help of 60,000 troops. He is the awesome, genius soldier heading the Union troops to victory. His character is very likeable, and believable for those times during the end of the Civil War. It is easy to follow his thoughts and see him through the eyes of other's.
The huge cast of characters makes for an entertaining novel showing the Confederate Rebs with as much compassion and humor as the Union warriors. The misfits, freed slaves, a surgeon (European), and a daughter of a Southern judge all end up playing roles that intertwine in surprising manners with Sherman's army. An example is two Confederate soldiers (Arly and Will) who end up saving themselves from a sticky situation by disrobing Union uniforms from some dead soldiers, putting them on, and acting like Union soldiers. They are very amusing and tragic characters portraying war horror, and war survival. It is really difficult for Will to play the opposite role, and Arly has no trouble prodding him along to devious means of survival.
Wade Sartorius, a German trained doctor, is both brilliant and cold to the hacking and barbarous surgical skills used by the Americans. He is known for his quick amputations, excellent techniques, and non-stop work. He is a General in the field with the Union troops, and he tries not to distinguish between the sides, or the freed slaves and the whites. He treats everyone well and equally medically. The nurses who work with him welcome this, as do the non-military people he is able to aid. His work consumes him though, and a blooming love affair whithers. Oddly enough, another Southern woman (Emily Thompson) has joined the Union troops and become his nurse, tending to many wounded. She finds herself in love with Sartorius, yet realizes that he is too busy with his work to satisfy her desires. She really matures in this story, coming from a young, spoiled rich background, seeing the Union troops take over her home (her father had just died), and quickly realizing she must accompany them to survive. She had met the surgeon, and he had made a very respectable impression on her which was the spur to her movements.
Another story at the same time is the freedom of Pearl, a white skinned black girl who becomes a woman while portraying herself as a boy until she can't any longer. She was also Emily Thompsons' slave. Her strength, courage, insight, and intellect rarely falters, and her continued safety is important to everyone she meets.
The many characters stories evolve along the march. Union troops are allowed to pillage, rape, destroy, and generally wreak havoc as they conquer town after town. Sherman always picks the nicest home to set up headquarters in, regardless of whose it is. Ethics are questioned in the many voices of the characters as they are from different backgrounds and the narrative picks up each voice as the march either destroys or creates an ending for each character. Sherman or "Uncle Billy" is well loved by his men, and he in return loves them and the war. The end of the march is a closure of the remaining characters destinations, not just the war.
If you would like to get a true feel for life during the Civil War, what the land was like, the people, the politics, the soldiers and generals, the slaves, this is the book to read. E.L. Doctorow has many awards for his many books, all deserving for he is a great writer, worthy of readers everywhere.