Although it is not an overly lengthy novel, Doctorow paints a very wide palette. It may be too wide. His cast of characters is broad, including the mandatory historical personalities. Most prominent among these is William Tecumsah Sherman (“Uncle Billy” to his troops), of the eponymous March. Pearl is a white skinned black, a slave fathered by her master. If there is a central character here, I suppose it is her, but not by a large measure. Arly is a petty criminal, who along with his partner, is released from prison by a Confederate General in return for his value as a soldier. He follows a twisted path to what becomes, for him, a glorious end. A photographer, or at least his assistant and his equipment figure in this tale, as does a family. Two sisters in search of different things, one looking for her lost sons, another for a purpose in life.
The March is an image of the road, a literary metaphor as well as a physical one. While all the characters walk the path blazed by Sherman to some degree it is the paths each blaze personally that resonate. Pearl is on her way not only to Washington Square to deliver a letter to a dead soldier’s family, but to make a new life for herself, journeying from slavery to freedom. A German doctor travels a path to give his life meaning, but is unable to engage in his experience in a meaningful way emotionally, and so, in a way, remains where he is. A roué of a colonel enjoys his life as a ladies man while proving his mettle in the field, until he is undone by his own desires.
When this is made into a film, and it most certainly will be, barring a significant rewrite it will be populated with an “ensemble cast.” No one character leads the way here. Sherman himself is not introduced until page 74. Whites of both the north and south share our attention with diverse black characters. Leaders occupy the same pages as the lowest on society’s ladder. A brief Lincoln appearance is mesmerizing. Doctorow offers a tableau of an America on the march from a slave to a modern society, with a peek at many of the issues entailed in that transition. I was reminded of Whitman while reading this. Doctorow seems in Whitman’s way drawn to the sinews of the real America. He paints a very real image of a major event in a significant time. And while one might feel a desire for a singular character to whom to relate, it makes more sense in this work to step back and take in Doctorow’s pointillist approach, as the many individual specks add up to a very compelling image.