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He came, he saw, he burned

Sherman's march through Georgia sets the scene for E.L. Doctorow's version of the Civil War novel

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There have been so many books written about the American Civil War, it seems as if every soldier should have had a chapter named after him by now.

The field is so crowded that E.L. Doctorow's new novel isn't even the first book set during the Civil War this year named "March" - that honor goes to Geraldine Brooks, who shipped the father from "Little Women" off to join the Union Army in early spring.

But, perhaps in a desire to avoid comparisons with a certain phone-book-sized classic, not many novelists have tackled General William Tecumseh Sherman's rampage through Georgia and the Carolinas head on.

Historians are another matter - and no wonder. It's compelling, if brutal, stuff.

Sherman (or Uncle Billy, as he was known to the troops) unleashed more than 60,000 soldiers on the South's civilians, burning, looting, raping, and leaving a scar 300 miles long and 60 miles wide from Atlanta to Savannah.

Doctorow ("City of God," "Billy Bathgate") has proven incredibly adept at recreating history, and the National Book Award winner is certainly not one to flee, even before the green-eyed monster of Southern literature.

And while none of his characters is as indelible as Scarlett O'Hara, it is a testament to the strength of his writing that Tara never casts its shadow over The March.

As with "Ragtime," Doctorow uses the lives of 20-odd individuals to weave together a picture of history.

(Fans of that book will take notice when a freed slave named Coalhouse Walker shows up and acquits himself admirably.)

Characters range from General Sherman and President Lincoln to a London Times correspondent who shows up just long enough to inadvertently free a slave child from a plantation.

But the most memorable are Arly, a rebel deserter and opportunist, who gets all the best lines; Emily Thompson, a Southern woman who lost her whole family and finds herself nursing the Union Army; and Pearl, the teenage daughter of a plantation owner and a slave.

If there is a heart to the novel, it belongs to Pearl, whom Doctorow gifts with preternatural dignity. He also gives her the greatest payback scene in the novel.

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