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'March' is stunning feat for Doctorow

THE MARCH, by E.L. Doctorow, Random House, 363 pages, $25.95.

Known for his carefully crafted novels that use history as a vehicle, E.L. Doctorow proves that he is getting better with age.

Already one of the foremost novelists of our time, Doctorow has produced book after book during his long career, each of them challenging, some of them strange — and most of them masterpieces.

Some of his books have been so complex that the reader is confused even as he is impressed with the story or the prose. Certainly that was true with "City of God," his last novel, published five years ago, and "Ragtime," which became a popular film and stage musical.

His latest, "The March," is an awesome combination of history and fiction, based on Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's infamous Civil War march through Georgia. Sherman is the same man who said, "War is Hell."

When he issued orders in September 1864 that Atlanta should be evacuated and burned, the mayor and city council requested reconsideration. In response, Sherman, a hard-liner, refused to revoke his orders, in spite of the destruction they would cause. It was necessary, he said, to bring peace.

Doctorow captures the historical feel of this horrific situation, during which Sherman's army slashed and burned its way through Georgia, leaving a permanent and lethal imprint on the culture. But he also creates fascinating characters that flesh out the human element of that march, making this book a model for the "journey" genre, as people of all types are uprooted and many try to keep up with the soldiers.

Some readers might prefer their history straight, getting nervous when fictional characters are added to the mix. But Doctorow pulls it off. Even the educated reader is not likely to be annoyed — but rather grateful that Doctorow's method helps illuminate humanity in the midst of catastrophe.

The novel provides an ambience often missing from traditional histories. And more important is the feel for what it must have been like for people who were arbitrarily thrown from their homes without a net, as soldiers are depicted as being without feeling, burning and pillaging without regard for human suffering.

In short, Doctorow succeeds in helping the reader understand the larger, calamitous meaning of the war, and brings it to both the heart and the mind. And he does it with some smashing characters, including:

Will Kirkland and Arly Wilcox, who are sprung from prison while waiting to be executed for sleeping on duty, and who find dead Union soldiers and take their uniforms to travel without suspicion.

Col. Wrede Sartorius, an army surgeon, who is as skilled in medicine as anyone could be in those days.

Emily Thompson, whose home is invaded by Sherman's army and who finds employment helping the physician. (They develop an unsteady romantic relationship.)

Pearl, a young black woman who appears more white than black, and who is the love of Stephen Walsh's life. He is taken with her beauty, but it is Pearl, not Walsh, who captures the imagination of the reader. She has pluck, personality and appeal.

A photographer who has a dramatic run-in with Will and Arly.

Several other interesting characters — even the man with the spike that cannot be removed from his brain.

Gen. Joe Johnston, Secretary of War Stanton and other genuine historical figures complete an incomparable story.

This feels as if it is Doctorow at his very best. His writing is beautiful in the midst of violence, the storytelling is superb, and "The March" actually enhances the real history of this seamy chapter of the Civil War.

With remarkable sensitivity, Doctorow puts the human connection up front.