By E. L. Doctorow
Random House; $25.95
E. L. Doctorow's The March is a panoramic view of the Civil War as seen through the eyes of a variety of participants, from soldiers to slaves to citizens. The narrative introduces characters, then abandons them to the winds and whims of conflict. As a reader, you never know who you might lose next.
A few characters are threaded throughout the arc of the entire novel, including Pearl, a white-skinned African-American girl, the offspring of a slave mother and white, slave-owning father. Freed by the circumstances of Sherman's 1864 march through Georgia, Pearl ends up traveling with Union solders in the service of Dr. Wrede Sartorius, a surgeon. Sartorius works with the quiet precision of a, well, a novelist like Doctorow, trying out new techniques in amputation and other health care tactics in the midst of the chaos of war. He treats the wounded and tries to heal them, no matter what uniform they're wearing.
If there is a main character, it is Gen. Sherman himself, the legendary slash and burn strategist who helped fulcrum the end of the war. Even Sherman is rendered human as Doctorow treats all his characters as multidimensional beings.
The language in the book tends to bend to the voice of the character it's focusing upon. It's an exhilarating experience as it places you directly into the raw reality of the character.
Doctorow (Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, The Book of Daniel) engages a profound pivot point in the trajectory of the United States and produces a compact epic, a kaleidoscope of pain and beauty.