The March by E. L. Doctorow
Published September 2005 by Random House Publishing Group
In 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman and his sixty thousand troops have just marched into Georgia and burned Atlanta. Now they are making their way to the coast and then up into the Carolinas as Sherman attempts to finish off the Confederacy.
Along the way, the troops will pick up thousands of freed slaves and refugees and the march will become something much more than just a military maneuver, it will become a study in humanity...and inhumanity.
Emily Thompson's father succumbs to death just as Sherman's troops storm through her town. When she goes in search of the doctor, she finds, instead, Wrede Sartorius, Union surgeon. Emily is so taken by Sartorius' gentlemanly ways and handling of the surgery that she makes the decisions, as the troops pull out, to follow along and help with the wounded and dying.
Pearl, a freed slave and daughter of her master, is nearly white and captures the hearts of one Union soldier after another. In this way, she is not only kept safe but finds herself also at work in Wrede Sartorius's unit. Her sole goal is to deliver a letter to the family of the soldier who first saved her.
Wrede Sartorius, the doctor who at first appeared to be so kindhearted, is first and foremost, a physician interested in advancing science even when it means that one man will ride with the troops for days with a spike sticking from his head so that the doctor could observe the decline of the patient for himself.
Arly and Will are Southern soldiers who find themselves in prison together early on, only to be liberated when they promise to fight to save a city. But Arly is always looking for the way to save his own skin and the two almost immediately desert, finding themselves on the Union side of the line.
Doctorow has a way of telling a sweeping saga at an intimate level that is almost unparalleled in storytelling. In The March is also able to make the reader see both the good and the bad in the actions of both sides of the conflict. More than once, I found myself hoping that the Union soldiers would "get theirs." As I did with Doctorow's Ragtime, I learned a lot from this book because Doctorow is also incomparable at mixing historical figures and actions in his fiction.
My one complaint with this book was that I spent most of it expecting the same kind of drawing together of storylines that I had so enjoyed in Ragtime which did not happen. Instead, some of the stories wrapped up early, some of them just ended; only a couple wound their way through the entire book. Which is probably more realistic, just not what I was expecting. So many people have cited this book as one of their all-time favorites and my expectations were high. While this, the last book I read in 2011, was one of my favorite books of the year, it still did not come close to captivating me in the way that Ragtime did.