Apr 20, 2010

March by Geraldine Brooks

March by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks’ March tells the story of Mr March, he of Jo, Amy, Beth and Meg fame. It’s not so much a retelling of Little Women as it is a book that exists around it, in its gaps and silences. In Louisa May Alcott’s novel, we’re told that the girls’ father is serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. March is his account of what he saw in the war and how this changed him – as well as an account, told through flashbacks, of his early years with Marmee, of how he lost his fortune, and of what lead to his decision to join the war.

Mr March is a passionate abolitionist, a pacifist, and a vegetarian. The harsh reality of war, death and despair that he sees every day eats away at his idealism, and every evening he struggles to present things positively when he writes to Marmee and the March girls. This is, of course, a nice way of saying that his letters are full of lies meant to spare their feelings. As each chapter opens with one of his letters, followed by an account of what actually happened, it’s difficult for readers to miss this. And this is the brilliant thing about March: it’s as much a book about honest communication and the things that constrain it as it is a book about the American Civil War, about slavery and racism, about different kinds of courage, and about idealism and reality.

March sneaked up on me: it took me about two thirds of the book to realise how much I was actually loving it. What happens after those first two thirds is that we get to the point in the story where Marmee gets a telegram saying Mr March has been wounded. She rushes to Washington to see him, and while he remains unconscious she picks up the narration. It was at this point that I realised how deliberate every single thing about the book had been; how brilliantly Geraldine Brooks had used the limitations of a first person narration.

For example, throughout Mr March’s narration I was troubled by his assumption that Marmee’s temper was unladylike; that for a wife and mother to ever feel anger simply wouldn’t do; that it was his job to manage her and make her control herself. I know this is well within character for a nineteenth-century man, but this is a contemporary novel, and I know that Brooks is a feminist. So I wondered if aspect of the story would eventually be examined, and if so, how – which it was, of course. It all begins with the following outburst from Marmee:
‘You stifle me! You crush me! You preach emancipation, and yet you enslave me, in the most fundamental way. Am I not to have the freedom to express myself, in my own home? In the face of such insult? You call your girls your “little women”; well, I am your belittled woman, and I am tired of it. Tired of suppressing my true feelings, tired of schooling my heart to order, as of I were some errant pupil and you the schoolmaster. I will not be degraded in this way.’
…and it continues when we get to Marmee’s own narration. Her version of events casts light on what they weren’t telling each other; on how both struggled to behave according to the roles of Husband and Wife they had been assigned. The story takes note of the fact that both March and Marmee had been silenced, though in different ways. March is yet another book that analyses the impact of the public on the private (can you tell I love those?); the way social expectations influence how people behave even in an intimate and loving relationship.

The thing that impressed me the most, though, was the fact that March is a novel that closely examines and questions gender roles and convention while remaining completely faithful to the sensibilities of its nineteenth-century narrators. The characters don’t do or say anything anachronistic – it’s exactly what they remain silent about that speaks volumes. The way Geraldine Brooks managed to achieve this absolutely impressed me.

But this is only one of the novel’s many themes. Like I said, March is also about different forms of courage, about guilt, about idealism and about pride. I haven’t read many stories that examine the fact that even well-meaning, highly idealistic people can do more harm than good by believing in their own indispensability. Sometimes feeling wretched because you can’t do more to help is nothing but a form of pride. Sometimes you have to accept it
s not up to you to change the world. And sometimes, the best you can do to help a cause is to let those it directly concerns handle it. The passage I share at the very end of this post illustrates this point perfectly.

Finally, I found Geraldine Brooks’ afterword about her research for this book extremely interesting. She based Mr March on Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s father, and some of March’s letters in the novel cite Alcott’s own letters. Also, there are appearances by Emerson and Thoreau, and she has them say things they are known to have said, though in different contexts. I love the fact that she took such care to truly capture the voices of her characters.

Favourite passages:
Who is the brave man—he who feels no fear? If so, then bravery is but a polite term for a mind devoid of rationality and imagination. The brave man, the real hero, quakes with terror sweats, feels his very bowels betray him, and in spite of this moves forward to do the act he dreads. And yet I do not think it is heroic to march into fields of fire, whipped on one’s way by fear of being called craven. Sometimes, true courage requires inaction; that one sit at home while war rages, if by doing so one satisfied the quiet voice of honorable conscience.

And now, a year has passed since I undertook to go to war, and I wake every day, sweating, in the solitude of the seed store at Oak landing, to a condition of uncertainty. More than months, more than miles, now stand between me and that passionate orator perched on his tree-stump pulpit. One day, I hope to go back. To my wife, to my girls, but also to the man of moral certainty that I was that day; that innocent man, who knew with such clear confidence exactly what it was that he meant to do.

It was folly to let him go. Unfair of him to ask it of me. And yet one is not permitted to say such a thing; it is just one more in a long list of things a woman must not say. A sacrifice such as his is called noble by the world. But the world will not help me put back together what war has broken apart.

“We have had enough of white people ordering our existence! There are men of my own race more versed in how to fetch and carry than you will ever be. And there are Negro preachers aplenty who know the true language of our souls. A free people to manage its own destiny.”
She had raised her voice and her eyes glared. I looked away, astonished by the vehemence of her rejection. “Go home, Mr. March,” she said. Then her voice softened. “If you sincerely want to help us, go back to Concord and work with your own people. Write sermons that will prepare your neighbors for a world where black and white may one day stand as equals.”
Other opinions:
Medieval Bookworm
The Biblio Blogazine
Reading Reflections
Laughing Stars
Book-a-rama
Chain Reader

(Did I miss yours?)

51 comments:

  1. Love your review about "March." Geraldine Brooks is one of my favorite authors. I will never forget Year of Wonders.

    teakettle58@yahoo.com

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  2. Oh, I really need to read this. I absolutely love 'Little Women' and I always thought that one doesn't know enough about Mr March and his experiences in the war. Would be great to read one author's take on that.

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  3. I should really reread Little Women and read the other work of the author. I remember really enjoying the book. This looks like a good read once I've done those things. I think it's rare for a book around a well known literary work to be a great read, so I'm always happy when I find one of those.

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  4. I wasn't that blown away by People of the Book but will certainly try this as it sounds excellent. Wonderful review!

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  5. Glad you liked this. Someone had to! Heh! I found it really dull, and couldn't believe it won the Pulitzer. I never liked Little Women, and that probably had a lot to do with why I didn't warm to March. Your review is great though, and brings out a lot of points I never thought about as I was reading the book. Brooks is a fine writer and I've enjoyed her other books.

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  6. I didn't realise she had based the character on Alcott's father, how interesting. I have this sitting on my shelf waiting to be read. I keep meaning to pick it up as I need to read it for the Australian Challenge. I am pleased to hear each chapter starts with a letter, how I love letters in books.

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  7. i loved this book when i read it a few years ago ,like her other brooks she is really good at historic fiction ,warmest stu

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  8. "It’s not so much a retelling of Little Women as it is a book that exists around it, in its gaps and silences". I LOVE that description!

    I also love the "belittled woman" from Marmee... Sigh, I NEED to read this book; it has been on my wishlist but I know that I am going to adore it with every fibre of my being and let it in just as I did Little Women.

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  9. March has been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple of years. I've hesitated to read it because Little Women is very dear to me and I didn't want March to spoil it for me -- either by giving me a "wrong" perspective on the characters, or by just being not a good book. But now that I read your review I think I'll give it a try after all.

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  10. I LOVE that first quote from Marmee. It made me want to pop out of my chair, pump my fist and say "you tell him girl!".

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  11. Great review! This one´s going on my tbr list :) I have her People of the Book on my pile so I´m porbably going to read it first.

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  12. Great review! I read this book a few years ago and liked it, but I wasn't sold on it. I am glad to see that you liked it more than I did.

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  13. I always wondered about Mr. March when I read Little Women. His life - even the little we saw of it - always sounded more interesting to me than that of the women. It would be great to read a feminist take on the whole thing. (I'm glad to see there is this addition to Little Women but I hope that doesn't mean we'll soon be seeing Little Women and the Vampires, etc.)

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  14. I don't think I could read this one at all. That passage you quoted from Marmee sounds completely out of character and very soapboxish to me and I think I would have bristled at her section every moment, seething at what this author felt like she could do to Alcott's characters. And I didn't even like LIttle Women when I read it! I think it's a little strange Mr. March would be a vegetarian, too, especially back in that age...maybe I'm wrong about that though. I don't know a lot about history. It just doesn't seem to fit well with Little Women.

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  15. Hmm, I must admit that I have not read Little Women yet (I know it's a shame), but I think I saw the movie. Anyway, I will keep this book in mind for the future. Thanks for your review!

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  16. I am so happy that you loved this! I read it several years ago and thought it was excellently done. I admit: I read it because it was shortlisted for the Pulitzer along with another of my favorite novels by a former professor of mine, Lee Martin's The Bright Forever--and it won. I've heard a lot of people say March is bring, or that they were offended that Papa March (not to mention Marmee) would be portrayed in this way, but I think it actually makes a terrific companion piece, an adult one, to Little Women, by rounding out the story. And it does offer so much history in context, not unlike The Children's Book.

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  17. I've always thought Bronson Alcott sounded like a nightmare, which is why I never read this. But it does sound fascinating, this blend of fact and fiction and the Little Women story.

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  18. My book group did this book last year. It was not universally loved, but I loved it. Such a different look at the Little Women story. Such a layered story. I have continued to think about this book and it was brought to mind recently when I the new book about Louisa May Alcott's lost summer.

    My book group has only repeated one author in our reading. Geraldine Brooks is that author and we have read 3 of her books. Think that says something. :-)

    Thanks for sharing such a marvelous review!

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  19. I think it's great that this book focuses so much on gender roles, since that was such a huge thing in Little Women as well. What a great way to pay homage to the original book by exploring its themes in different ways!

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  20. I need to read this since Little Women is one of my all time favorite books.

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  21. I read this in early days of blogging and I remember enjoying it but not as much as you did. It just didn't stick with me. I apprecaite all you share about why you liked it though. My reread of Little Women, however, reminded me why I enjoy that one so much!

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  22. Sounds really intriguing - another one to add to the pile...!

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  23. Wonderful review. I've been meaning to read this one, but it just keeps getting pushed back. I need to move it up on my pile. :)

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  24. Great review! I read this when it first came out and must admit that it didn't float my boat...I was keen to read it as I loved Year of Wonders by the same author, a must read, and Little Women was one of my favourite childhood reads. I think the latter was my main obstacle to enjoying this "follow-up" as it presented Mr March in a very different light which totally opposed the saint-like version of him in LW - very superficial of me, I know, but it's hard to shake off your attachment to childhood impressions! People of the Book was another of her novels which I very much enjoyed.

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  25. I'm in the middle of this one right now - I think I'm about to the point where you said it picks up. Looking forward to enjoying more than just lovely writing. :)

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  26. It sounds like Brooks did her research and tied in Trancendentalism with the March's everyday life, which alone makes me want to read this book.

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  27. This sounds wonderful. I would like to reread Little Women and then read this one.

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  28. great review, this does sound good.
    Little Women is one of my favorite classics.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  29. I had no real interest in reading this book until I read your review. and now I think it sounds fabulous. I love exploring the gender roles through a marriage, and using first-person in such a manner to bring that to light. That sounds fantastic!

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  30. Weird coincidence: I was listening to To Daddy while I was reading this.

    This sounds like an interesting concept for a book. Mr. March is, like, the LEAST interesting character in Little Women. When is Laurie going to get his own book, huh? Anyway, it sounds like this book covers very similar issues as The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott.

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  31. I'm surprised I've never heard of this book before - it sounds like a good one. I especially love those excerpts you included!

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  32. Go Marmee! :-D

    I've debated with myself for quite awhile on whether or not to give this one a try. As usual, you've convinced me.

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  33. You know what, I tried to read Year of Wonders but couldn't get into it. I was thinking that Geraldine Brooks just wasn't for me, but now I want to read March!! You are SO convincing... (in a good way, of course).

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  34. I so loved March!!! I thought it was a very original story and one that captivated me!

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  35. Great review. I've wanted to read this one for so long. Little Women is one of my favorites.

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  36. I didn't realize this book was about the Marches of Little Women! Now you've got my interest really piqued. I adored Little Women as a child and have read it a few times then (never as an adult, however). It's a little scary to touch this, though, as it might ruin the image I have of the characters. Hm... but so tempted.. :D

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  37. I love what you said about well meaning idealistic people doing more harm than good and how that's a kind of pride. It's so true and really rather humbling to realize we are not always the best person to accomplish the things we want to. As usual, your book reviews are packed with so much wisdom.

    and sorry to say Jill, but there is already Little Vampire Women and Little Women and Werewolves I believe.

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  38. I loved March. Reading your review makes me want to go read it again. Right now.

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  39. I haven't read March and have been so indecisive as to whether I should. I'm obviously very convinced by the Pulitzer element, but I didn't love her other two novels. I thought Year of Wonders was good but just went silly at the end and that People of the Book was good also but didn't really hold my attention. Am more interested now having read your review though! Thanks!

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  40. This has been sitting on my shelf for probably the past two or three years. I've read Brooks' other books and loved it but...I've always hesitated coming to this. Partly because I'm not all that keen on new stories of other author's characters. March has been so highly acclaimed though but still...

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  41. I have been wanting to read this after having read The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott and finding out so much about her father Bronson. In the book that I read, he was just such an odd bird, and I am looking forward to reading this to try to get a different perspective on him. Great review, Nymeth! It sounds like this book deals with a myriad of different issues.

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  42. I really need to read this book. I have owned it forever, but haven't got around to it yet.

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  43. You liked this a lot more than I did! I just didn't connect with it at all. Maybe it would have helped if I'd thought as deeply about it as you have here. I did enjoy Brooks's other books so who knows?

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  44. Tea: This was my first time reading her, but certainly not my last.

    Susi: Yeah, the silence about that in Little Women is hard to miss! It was really a story begging to be told :)

    Iris: I think the reason why it works so well is that she chose to tell a new story instead of overlapping with the original. The result is something completely new.

    Cath: I've seen some mixed reviews of that one, so I think my next Brooks will be either Nine Parts of Desire or Year of Wonders.

    Violet: lol, I like how you said "someone had to" :P Sorry it didn't work for you!

    Vivienne: I love letters in books too :) I just love letters, period :P I hope you enjoy this when you get to it!

    winstonsdad: I'm a fan of historical fiction, so I can't believe it took me this long to get to her. I must get my hands on her other books.

    Claire, isn't her outburst awesome? I hope you enjoy this as much as I did! And I think you will.

    Fredegonde: I completely understand how an attachment to the original would make a big difference. I only read Little Women for the first time last year, so that wasn't much of a problem for me. For what it's worth, I think she completely respected the characters' original personalities!

    Sandy: You and me both :D

    Bina: Let me know what you think of it!

    Amy: Sorry you weren't quite taken with it!

    Jill: Such was often the case with the lives of men, wasn't it? And I see Amy already broke the news to you about Little Women and Werevolves :P

    Amanda: Well, needless to say, I couldn't disagree more :P Perhaps the passage works better in context, when you see just how much she silenced over time, and also how that particular episode ends (of course she WILL be treated that way again and again, because in reality she has very little power). I don't think it was at all uncommon for nineteenth century women to feel dissatisfied or angry that they were constantly patronised. They didn't voice if often, but I bet they did sometimes. Of course, if someone who knows more about the nineteenth century than I do disagrees I'd love to hear why, but nothing at all in this book contradicted my own knowledge. The vegetarianism thing: Louisa May Alcott's father was himself a vegetarian, and even formed a farming commute called Fruitlands which still exists today. Vegetarianism was not uncommon among the Transcendentalists, and since that's the cultural environment in which Alcott lived and in which Little Women takes place, I thought it made perfect sense.

    Andreea: Nothing to be ashamed of! I read it for the first time last December :P

    Priscilla: I completely agree! I don't see what about it would be offensive, to be honest :P

    Jenny: I kind of wanted to shake Mr March at times while reading this :P But in the end he just seems so human. And plus Marmee provided a nice counterbalance.

    Kay: I'm quite curious about that book on Louisa May Alcott! And I clearly need to read more Brooks.

    Steph: Yes, exactly! I thought it was an excellent take on both what Little Women says and what it doesn't.

    Kathy, I hope you enjoy it!

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  45. I just recently added this book to my TBR pile (found the hardback in a remainder bin at Barnes and Noble), and trying to decide whether I should read this one before Brooks" "people of the Book" which is also in my TBR.

    In spite of the title, I actually thought "March" was historical fiction about Bronson Alcott and his family! Seems like its a little bit of both the Alcotts and the "Little Women" story?

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  46. This sounds like a good book to read. I read Little Women for the first time when I was 11, and I can't even recall how many times I've re-read it since, though it's been a long time since my last re-read. March looks like a book that could complement Little Women very well. =)

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  47. I felt lukewarm about this when I read it, but it may have been something about listening to it. Some of it's strengths may have been more apparent reading it. I do have a review (from what seems like ages ago) here:

    http://blog.chainreader.com/2008/01/audiobook-march-by-geraldine-brooks.html

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  48. I thought this book was amazing, and your review is brilliant. I absolutely agree with what you said about being true to the sensibilities of the time. I really felt I was being drawn back into the world of Little Women.

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  49. Gah my comment did not post.

    Anyway just wanted to say that I like the book for the same reasons you highlighted and the differing persepctives on the tree stump oration is really the pivotal moment for me. It shows not only the masks they use to fit into society's expected shapes, but the way that men almost exploited these conventional shapes to over ride wifely disagreement. It's an interesting how March often silences his wife and complys with society, despite being thought of as rather revolutionary.

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  50. Rebecca: Little Women is a great book, yes. One of the reasons why I decided to read it last year was actually in preparation for March - I'm very glad I did!

    Katherine, I hope you enjoy it :)

    Katy: Thank you! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    lovely treez: I completely understand how being so attached to the original would make a difference. I need to read her other novels as soon as possible.

    Melissa: I look forward to your final thoughts on it!

    Jeanne: Yes, exactly! That was one of the most interesting things about it.

    Kathleen: I think reading it shortly after a re-read of Little Women is a great idea :) I read the original for the first time not too long ago, so it was all still fresh in my mind.

    Naida: I can see why :)

    Aarti: I'm glad to have changed your mind :P I've had that happen to me as well: sometimes a book just doesn't appeal to me until someone mentions something very specific about it.

    Heidenkind: I'm getting more and more curious about The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott!

    Emidy: I'm glad you like them!

    Jill: yay :D

    Heather: lol :P I hope you have better luck with this one!

    Staci: Same here - I love how she remains faithful to the original while making the story completely her own.

    Dar, I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    Claire, I don't think it will! She fleshes them out, but not in a way that goes against Louisa May Alcott's version of them. I walked away from it liking Marmee in particular more than ever.

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  51. Amy: lol, thank you for breaking the news to Jill for me ;) And I loved how the novel dealt with that theme in particular. It doesn't seem to get explored in fiction very much.

    Michelle: I bet it'd be even better on a re-read!

    Elise: That's too bad her others didn't quite work for you. I hope you have better luck with this one!

    Mae: I know what you mean, but I think Brooks does it much much better than most.

    Zibilee: Mr March here is definitely an usual man too, but not in an unsympathetic way.

    Kelly, I think you'd like it!

    Meghan: Sometimes it's just the wrong moment! I really look forward to reading her others.

    Valerie: Yes, it is a little bit of both! She used Bronson Alcott's letters and diaries to flesh out Mr March. It makes some sense, considering that many see Little Women itself as somewhat autobiographical.

    Michelle: I think it complemented it very well, yes!

    Shelley: Thank you for your link! I can see how the audio format would perhaps make a difference.

    Steph: Thank you so much! I'm glad we agree :)

    Jodie: Gah, sorry about the lost comment :\ I absolutely agree with you about that scene. I smelled a rat when March said, "she couldn't even speak, she was so proud of me". Ha. I loved seeing it again through Marmee's eyes.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.