It's about: As seen from the differing points of view of a huge cast of characters, this book follows General Sherman's famous march through the American south near the end of the Civil War. This was when Sherman implemented the hugely destructive "scorched earth" policy, meaning his army of 60,000 destroyed/burned/raped everything in their path. This book from those who took part and from those in its path.
I thought: First of all, I should tell you that I'm a pretty big fan of war books. I'm fascinated by the utter destruction and upheaval of war and I'm always interested to see how authors represent the effects on their characters. That being said, this book completely enthralled me. As I mentioned above, the story of the march was told from the POV of multiple characters of differing backgrounds - a half white slave girl named Pearl, General Sherman, two Rebel boys who are liberated from jail, a surgeon, a British journalist, etc etc. I thought the multiple narrators really worked well, as they allowed the reader to see the horrors of war from Northerners, Southerners, foreigners, men, women, blacks and whites, privates and generals. There is no bias here. I found that this multi-vocal approach was very effective in representing the confusion and widespread destruction of war.
Another particular aspect of this book that I loved was how Doctorow represented the concept of space, and how the meaning of places change and evolve based on what occurs there and what one experiences there. All of the characters are uprooted from their homes, and each derive different meanings and significance from the different places they inhabit throughout the book. The is divided into three sections: Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
I love this quote, and I think it sums up this space idea pretty well:
Though this march is done, and well accomplished, I think of it now, God help me, with longing--not for its blood and death but for the bestowal of meaning to the very ground trod upon, how it made every field and swamp and river and road into something of moral consequence, whereas now, as the march dissolves so does the meaning, the army strewing itself into the isolated intentions of diffuse private life, and the terrain thereby left blank and also diffuse, and ineffable, a thing once again, and victoriously, wihtout reason, and, whether diurnally lit and darkened, or sere and fruitful, or raging or calm, completely insensible and without and purpose of its own.
And why is Grant so solemn today upon our great achievement, except he knows this unmeaning inhuman planet will need our warring imprint to give it value, and that our civil war, the devastating manufacture of the bones of our sons, is but a war after a war, a war before a war.
Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.
Reading Recommendations: I recommend this to everyone, especially those interested in the American Civil War.
Warnings: Violence, profanity. War stuff.
"He could not stop thinking about the President. Something of his feeling was turning to awe. In retrospect, Mr. Lincoln's humility, which Wrede had descried as weakness, now seemed to have been like a favor to his guests, that they would not see the darkling plain where he dwelled. Perhaps his agony was where his public and private beings converged. Wrede lingered on the dock. The moral capacity of the President made it difficult to be in his company. To explain how bad he looked, the public care on his brow, you would have to account for more than an inherited syndrome. A proper diagnosis was not in the realm of science. His affliction might, after all, be the wounds of the war he'd gathered into himself, the amassed miseries of this torn-apart country made incarnate."
"And so the war had come down to words. It was fought now in terminology across a table. It was contested in sentences. Entrenchments and assaults, drum taps and bugle calls, marches, ambushes, burnings, and pitched battles were transmogrified into nouns and verbs. It is all turned very quiet, Sherman said to Johnston, who, not quite understanding, lifted his head to listen.
No cannonball canister but has become the language here spoken, the words written down, Sherman thought. Language is war by other means."
What I'm reading next: Strange Relation by Rachel Hadas, also still working on At Home by Bill Bryson