BANGOR, Maine — Birds sang sweetly and warm spring sunshine filtered through the trees outside the Eastern Area Agency on Aging one recent afternoon when a dozen women in their 60s and older gathered in a conference room to discuss race relations, the American transcendentalist movement and the horrors of war.
Members of the Novel Seniors Book Club meet at the Bangor agency on the second Monday of each month to discuss the title they’ve all read over the past weeks. The book under review at the April meeting was the novel “March,” by Geraldine Brooks, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006. The novel retells the 1868 classic “Little Women,” by Louisa May Alcott, through the eyes of the March girls’ abolitionist father, absent from the original narrative because he has gone south to serve as a chaplain for Union troops fighting in the Civil War.
Brooks’ novel includes graphic depictions of battlefield violence and the entrenched cruelties of slavery and racism. These brutalities are contrasted with the high-minded, intellectual environment of Concord, Massachusetts, where Alcott’s family — the model for the March family — lived alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and other important figures of the philosophical movement known as transcendentalism. Transcendentalism holds that humans and nature are inherently good and that society and institutions ultimately corrupt that goodness by undermining self-reliance and intuition. The movement is rooted in Europe and has strong links to Unitarianism. Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, also was a central figure in the movement and serves as a model for Brooks’ character of Mr. March.
The Pulitzer notwithstanding, “March” got mixed reviews, first when it was published, and again at the Novel Seniors meeting. All the women in the book group admired the author’s skill, originality and research, but several found her descriptions of violence and suffering disturbing. For a few, the visceral writing was too much to take.
“I just decided not to read all those horrors of war,” group member Chris Dirmeir said, explaining why she had not finished the book. But she still showed for the discussion, eager to enjoy the camaraderie of the group and hear what the others had thought.
Claudette O’Connell agreed the writing was “gory” in places, and she had been tempted to put the book down. But she persevered and was glad she did. For one thing, the book reminded her that the suffering of the slaves did not end with the defeat of the Confederacy or the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“I had forgotten that they became sharecroppers,” she said. As such, many freed slaves and their families remained essentially powerless and continued living in poverty and ignorance for generations. “Education is what they needed,” O’Connell said.
Dottie England, who leads the monthly book discussions, said she comes from “a long line of slave-owners.” She read aloud from the will of a long-ago relative, a wealthy southern cotton grower who bequeathed his slaves and their descendents to his children and their descendents “forever.”
“If this was legal today, I would own slaves now,” England said somberly. Her mother believed that slavery was endorsed in the Bible and felt that the system offered benefits to slaves and slave-owners. “She believed in slavery until the day she died,” England said.
Linda Sisson, who lived in Virginia as a child, recalled that textbooks in the 1950s acknowledged breezily that, for captured slaves, “the voyage over [from Africa] was difficult, but their standard of living improved once they got here.” Racist JIm Crow laws and attitudes, she said, persisted throughout her youth and are reflected today in acts of violence against black Americans and higher rates of arrest and incarceration.
Even in Maine voter suppression efforts target blacks and other minority groups, Nina Hansen said. And, citing a recent survey in Portland, she said, “police are more likely to stop a black driver, even if he’s not doing anything wrong, than they are a white driver. It’s a big problem, even here, even now.”
The lively conversation ranged away from race relations and current politics to the larger-than-life leaders of the transcendentalist and abolitionist movements to the motive for Mr. March to keep the most gruesome details of the war, and other information, from his wife and daughters in an effort to shield them.
Not everyone took part in the conversation, but most did, including first-timer Lorna Higgins of Dedham, who participated via speakerphone.
“I was trying to find something for my mother to do,” she said, explaining how she got involved. “She’s 85, and we had to take her license away. I got the book, but I couldn’t get my mom interested in it.” So she read it herself and decided to join the group. “I’ve been wanting to get into a book club forever,” she said. Not only did she enjoy “March,” but reading it inspired her to find her old copy of “Little Women” in her garage and read it again.
For May, the Novel Seniors will read “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” by Margot Lee Shetterly — a “great antidote” to the somber reflections of “March,” the group agreed. June’s selection is “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East,” by Sandy Tolan.
Group leader Dottie England said members are encouraged to suggest titles and the group votes on which ones to read. While the current lineup is on the serious side, selections also include lighter fiction, biographies and even mysteries. Historical fiction and books with a Maine connection are popular choices, she said, including authors such as Ardeana Hamlin, Sarah Smiley, Monica Wood, Stephen King and Richard Blanco.
“Sometimes we read a book we never would have pulled off the shelf ourselves,” Linda Sisson said.
And the process of discussing it, Claudette O’Connell added, reveals new insights. “Usually when I finish a book at home, I put it away on a shelf and I’m done,” she said. “But this provides a little study, a little perspective and new points I hadn’t thought of on my own. And next year, when someone mentions ‘March,’ I’ll remember it well.”
The cost to participate in Novel Seniors is $5 per month, which includes the purchase of the current book.