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'The March': A Civil War Novel

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In his long and distinguished career as a novelist, E.L. Doctorow has turned now and then to history, to the Old West and to the streets of 19th century New York City. His new novel is called "The March." It takes on General Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas. The campaign effectively put an end to Confederate resistance to Union rule. Alan Cheuse has this review of Doctorow's book.

ALAN CHEUSE reporting:

General Sherman led more than 60,000 troops on his fabled march, and now and then while reading E.L. Doctorow's fluid pages, you feel overwhelmed by the multitude of characters: plantation owners and their wives, newly emancipated slaves, troops of soldiers, some in blue, some in gray, generals and privates, field surgeons, widows and orphans, townspeople and journalists and, towards the very end of the book, President Lincoln at the very end of his life.

Most of the time General Doctorow keeps all of his troops under control. The battle scenes ring true to life, though more in the spirit of the oblique views of war we get in, say, Stendhal's depiction of the Battle of Waterloo in "The Charterhouse of Parma" than the full-on, full battle-dress encounters we find in Tolstoy and in movies about the Civil War. And of all those many characters, a few do stay with you in haunting fashion, especially Pearl, the adolescent slave girl who takes on the guise of a battlefield drummer boy and finally evolves into one of the most affecting young women in recent American fiction. We follow her fate with deep interest and affection. Her destiny becomes a stand-in for the destiny of all the characters.

The odd thing is that so few Civil War novels, good or bad, have ever come from the best American writers. We've got the costume schlock of "Gone with the Wind," and Faulkner's amazing short novel "The Unvanquished," a sort of back-door view of the war, and the classic battlefield novel "The Red Badge of Courage," and that's just about it, isn't it? That's why critic Daniel Aaron so many years ago called this conflict the unwritten war. E.L. Doctorow has now done his part to change that, and he's done a splendid job.

BLOCK: The book is "The March" by E.L. Doctorow. Our reviewer Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.