March An Extraordinary Novel From American History English Literature Essay

From Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic Little Women, Geraldine Brooks has taken the character of the absent father, March, who has gone off to war, leaving his wife and daughters to make do in mean times. To evoke him, Brooks turned to the journals and letters of Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s father — a friend and confidant of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. In her telling, March emerges as an idealistic chaplain in the little known backwaters of a war that will test his faith in himself and in the Union cause as he learns that his side, too, is capable of acts of barbarism and racism. As he recovers from a near mortal illness, he must reassemble his shattered mind and body and find a way to reconnect with a wife and daughters who have no idea of the ordeals he has been through.

Spanning the vibrant intellectual world of Concord and the sensuous antebellum South, March adds adult resonance to Alcott’s optimistic children’s tale to portray the moral complexity of war, and a marriage tested by the demands of extreme idealism — and by a dangerous and illicit attraction. A lushly written, wholly original tale steeped in the details of another time, March secures Geraldine Brooks’s place as an internationally renowned author of historical fiction.

Mr. March, an abolitionist and chaplain, is driven by his conscience to leave his home and family in Concord, Massachusetts in order to participate in the war. During this time, March writes letters to his family, but withholds the true extent of the brutality and injustices he witnesses on and off the battlefields. After suffering from a prolonged illness stemming from poor conditions on a cotton farm in Virginia, the recovering March, despite his guilt and grief over his survival when others had perished, returns home to his wife and Little Women, but was scarred by the events he had to go through.

Chapter One: Virginia Is a Hard Road

March opens with lines from a letter written by John March, a forty-year-old company chaplain for the Union army, on October 21, 1861, to his wife, Marmee, and to his daughters, after the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Virginia. March is exhausted but has promised to write her everyday. He admits that although he misses her comforting hand, he does not want her there, and he will not write her the truth about the war.

March watches the burial party collect bodies, claiming, “I had no orders, and so placed myself where I believed I could do most good,” praying with the wounded. He recalls that during the battle, he tried to help a young Union soldier cross the river to safety, but the boy was shot in the process and drowned. Some of the men, including March, made it to an island in the river where March now thinks about the day’s events and the rotting bodies that surround him. As he makes his way to the army field hospital, he recognizes that it is Clement’s house.

Chapter Two: A Wooden Nutmeg

When he was eighteen, March peddled trinkets and books throughout Virginia. At one plantation, he met a slave named Grace who impressed him with her regal manner and beauty. She brought him into the kitchen for a meal and later to meet the master, Augustus Clement, who took an immediate liking to March and his passion for learning. Clement invited him to stay as long as he liked and peruse his well-stocked library. The two men talked long into the night about the books that they had read, enjoying each other’s company.

The next day, March met the frail Mrs. Clement who had not been well since a fall from her horse. March noted Grace’s kind treatment of her mistress, to whom she read every afternoon. Mrs. Clement explained that Grace was born on the plantation and was given to her as a wedding gift. Grace later told him that Clement sold her mother south soon after she was born.

That evening March and Mr. Clement discussed slavery, the latter insisting that slaves should be treated decently but not trusted because they are prone to such vices as “laziness, deceit, debauchery, [and] theft.” He considered them children, “morally speaking,” who occasionally needed to be whipped “for their good, as well as [their masters].” When Clement convinced March that slaves benefit “from the moral example of the master,” March felt fortunate to be “even briefly, a part of this higher way of life.”

After Prudence, the cook’s daughter, showed aptitude and interest in learning to read, March drew some letters in the ashes of the hearth, which frightened Grace. She explained to March that for the past ten years teaching a slave to read had been against the law. Later, however, Grace reconsidered and asked March to teach Prudence to read.

March, who had always yearned to be a teacher, was touched by Grace’s request and considered raising the issue with Clement. One evening, when March asked him whether one of his slaves could be taught to handle some of the accounts at the plantation, Clement reproached him, insisting that educating a slave would inspire a violent rebellion. The next morning, March decided to begin teaching Prudence surreptitiously a few nights a week.

During the next two weeks, Prudence proved herself to be an apt pupil as March became a capable teacher. One evening, after drinking too much wine, March kissed Grace who then warned him that “it’s not wise” to do so. Later, he was awakened by Clement’s manager who discovered evidence that he had been teaching Prudence. Grace took responsibility and as a result was cruelly whipped, which March was forced to observe.

Chapter Three: Scars

March writes his next letter to his wife on November 1, 1861, thanking her for her letter and a parcel that she has sent. He thinks back to his wanderings after he left the Clement estate and remembers one day praying in a church. Outside the window, slaves were being auctioned. When the pastor called for donations for missions into Africa to a congregation that ignored the injustices occurring just a few feet away, March was sickened by the hypocrisy and left. During the next year, March made good money on his sales, which eventually he invested and turned into a sizable fortune.

At present, he works with a surgeon at the Union camp and offers comfort to dying men. Only three hundred and fifty are left out of more than six hundred. He discovers that Grace is helping the surgeon and tending to Clement, who has become a feeble old man. She explains that after his wife died, Clement refused to give Grace up, and later she admits that he is her father. After Clement’s son was disfigured in a hunting accident, Clement started a slow decline in health. March’s feelings of guilt and lust for her overwhelm him and the two embrace.

Chapter Four: A Little Hell

While he is stationed outside Harper’s Ferry, March writes Marmee on January 15, 1862, about his position as chaplain and about how some soldiers with a stricter religious attitude are perplexed by his unconventional beliefs. He explains that the previous night, as they were poised for battle, he gave a sermon on John Brown and his abolitionist activities.

March remembers the first time he met Marmee, in her brother’s church where he had been invited to speak. When he saw her in the congregation, he was immediately struck with her intensity and intelligence. That evening at dinner with her and her brother, March discovered that their zeal for reform matched his own.

As he waits for the fighting to begin near Harper’s Ferry, March sees many injustices. A major commands troops to burn a town after one of his men is killed there. When March criticizes the action, the major refuses to speak to him further. March later finds soldiers harassing a woman and her daughter and destroying her property. When he reports them, the colonel barely responds. The colonel then suggests that March resign his post because he “can’t seem to get on with anyone.” When March resists, the colonel insists, noting that the surgeon has seen him with Grace. The colonel wants him reassigned to the “problem of the contraband,” the displaced former slaves. March is worried that he will bring shame to Marmee if she discovers his relationship with Grace, and so he agrees.

Chapter Five: A Better Pencil

March thinks back to his relocation to Concord, where Marmee is staying with her invalid father, under the pretext of searching for an investment. His uncle had found him a young man who had invented a better pencil. March stayed with the Thoreaus and their son, Henry David Thoreau, a taciturn person who felt most at home in nature.

One evening, Mrs. Thoreau, an ardent abolitionist, invited Ralph Waldo Emerson, his wife, and Marmee, who was a friend of her daughters, for dinner. After Emerson rebuked Marmee for endangering her father with her abolitionist activities, Marmee flew into a rage, insisting that Emerson was doing little to help the plight of blacks. March was shocked by her outburst and thought that she needed a man to help her govern her temper.

That night, March came across Marmee in the woods. She broke down as she told him that the slave she was trying to help was caught and branded. March’s attempts at consolation led to a consummation of their feelings for each other. Less than two weeks later they were married, and within nine months, Marmee gave birth to Margaret, the first of their four daughters.

Chapter Six: Yankee Leavening

March writes to Marmee on March 10, 1862, while aboard the Hetty G, a federal ram boat, on his way to Oak Landing, a southern plantation that is now being run by Ethan Canning, an Illinois attorney. Canning has a year’s lease on the property, which he is trying to restore and make profitable. When Marsh arrives, he finds the plantation in utter disarray. The cotton fields are overgrown, and the house has been picked clean by federal soldiers and rebel irregulars. After finding a sick boy and rescuing a man whom Canning had confined in a well for punishment, March confronts Canning about the treatment of the ex-slaves on his property, none of whom is being paid for his labor.

Canning explains that there is no doctor available to treat the sick, and the man whom he punished had slaughtered a hog and fed it to his grown sons who then joined the Confederates. The 167 ex-slaves on the plantation need to be fed, and so they all must work, he insists, to harvest the cotton crop. Their pay will come after the cotton is sold. March determines to contact abolitionists in Concord and Boston to help fund the running of the plantation. He feels guilty about not being able to help: He has lost his fortune, which has impoverished his family and has caused him a tremendous sense of guilt.

Chapter Seven: Bread and Shelter

March thinks back to the time when he and Marmee were newlyweds and when he renovated their home, which included a space in which slaves could hide on their way north to Canada. They spent a good deal of time with Emerson and Thoreau. One evening, Marmee lost her temper with March’s aunt over the issue of slavery. Later, they heard a speech by John Brown, the famous abolitionist, who spoke at a Concord church. Brown stirred Marmee’s passions, and she and March invited him back to their home where he outlined his Adirondack project, which helped indigent blacks become landowners. Prodded in part by his jealously over his wife’s attentions to Brown, March turned over his fortune to Brown for his project. The land Brown bought proved, however, to be worthless, and much of the money was rerouted into arms.

With their finances depleted, March was forced to sell off his possessions and move to a smaller home. Aunt March and Marmee had another heated argument, which caused the former to refuse to talk to the family for ten years. When March confronted Marmee about her temper after she lashed out at him, she agreed that it had gotten out of hand and resolved to work on controlling her emotions. Ten years later, when Jo ran into Aunt March on the street, Jo charmed the elderly woman who hired her as a companion. Meg had already acquired a position as a governess to help out with the family’s finances.

Chapter Eight: Learning’s Altar

March writes to Marmee from Oak Landing, on March 30, 1862, the day the cotton ginning begins. He tells her that he has set up his schoolhouse and that the workers are enthusiastic learners. Later, March goes to town to get news of the war and comes across a group of Union scouts. One causes a young black child, Jimse, to scald his hand. March takes the child back to the plantation, followed by the child’s mother Zannah, and dresses his wound. He is later told that Zannah never speaks because her tongue was cut out by two whites who had molested her. March notes his absolute pleasure in teaching, even though it is exhausting work.

Chapter Nine: First Blossom

On May 10, 1862, March writes to Marmee that all are rejoicing on the plantation this day because the cotton has been safely shipped to market, and they have received packages from Concord, filled with clothing, food, and medicines. When payment arrives, Canning has little left after handing out wages to the blacks. But some of the workers bring him high quality cotton that they had saved and hidden from the soldiers, which enables Canning to pay his expenses. That night, March celebrates with the workers.

Chapter Ten: Saddleback Fever

The next morning March awakes with saddleback fever, so called because the return of health is only temporary before the fever strikes again. Canning and the workers nurse him back to health. When he recovers, Canning tells him that the Union army is reducing the number of soldiers in the nearby town. They all now fear that the Confederates will try to take the land and return the workers to slavery. March, however, refuses to leave, even though Canning warns him that the Confederates kill abolitionists.

Chapter Eleven: Tolling Bells

March recalls the details of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and his resulting martyrdom in the North. The incident, however, had a negative effect on blacks in the South and caused a slowdown of the number of escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. He remembers when they hid a young, pregnant girl for a few weeks. One evening, when March and Marmee were out, the constable came to look for the girl but Beth, one of their daughters, sent him away. A year later, war was declared, and during an impromptu sermon given to a group of young men preparing to leave, March decided to join them in their fight.

Chapter Twelve: Red Moon

March’s fears are realized when one evening, Confederate soldiers raid the plantation. March hides while Canning is captured and tortured. One of the soldiers threatens to kill a worker if March does not come out of hiding, but March’s fear holds him back, and the soldier decapitates the worker, which fills March with overwhelming guilt. The soldiers burn the buildings and round up several black men, women, and children and leave with them along with Canning, who has had both knees shattered by bullets. March follows at a safe distance, wondering how he can ever face his family and endure his shame.

After the group arrives at camp, March tries to help Zannah when a soldier attacks her as she tries to save her child. Jesse, one of the workers, stops him, insisting “Now ain’t no time to make a move.” He tells March to wait with him until nightfall when they might have a chance to free some of the workers.

Chapter Thirteen: A Good Kind Man

Jesse explains that he “put a little something” in the corn liquor the soldiers stole from the plantation and that they will wait until the men feel its effects. When the first soldier, sickened by the liquor, goes off into the woods, Jesse kills him and takes his weapons. March refuses to kill the next one but takes the saber from Jesse so that he can free the workers. He overhears the soldiers planning to ransom Canning, but the latter insists that he has no family to pay for him. Just as a soldier is about to kill Canning, March rushes out from his hiding place and insists that he has a fiancée. Canning, however, admits that the woman died of consumption a year ago. Determining that he will decide their fate in the morning, the major orders March and Canning tied up.

Soon, after most of the soldiers have fallen into a drunken sleep, he sees Zannah, whom Jesse had helped to escape, cut the other captives’ ropes. A cracking branch draws fire from one of the guards and the others awaken and recapture the workers, but not before killing some, including Canning, and wounding March. After March lies unconscious for a time, Zannah appears and tells him that she is the only one who got away. March loses consciousness again, and when he awakes, he finds himself in a Union hospital. A nurse tells him that Zannah risked her life to bring him there.

Chapter Fourteen: Blank Hospital

The narrative switches to Marmee’s voice after she has received a note from Blank Hospital in Washington, informing her that March is gravely ill. As she sits by his bedside, waiting for him to regain consciousness, she thinks that “it was folly to let him go” and that he should not have left his family. She also blames him in part for plunging the family into poverty.

When she first sees him in the hospital, she does not recognize him due to his emaciated, broken body, which is suffering from fever and pneumonia. When he wakes, he is delirious, ranting about people and events that she does not recognize. She can only make out his cries for forgiveness.

Chapter Fifteen: Reunion

The next morning Marmee tries to find someone in the hospital to care for her husband, but the number of patients overwhelms the small number of staff. She has an argument with a cold, curt nurse and ends up throwing a bowl of soup in her face. Marmee recognizes that if March is going to survive, she will have to care for him. An orderly who has observed the row directs her to the nurse who knows more details about what happened to March. The nurse turns out to be Grace, who has cared for him since he arrived in the hospital. When she observes the intimate interaction between March and Grace, Marmee suspects that he has been unfaithful to her.

Chapter Sixteen: River of Fire

When March is too weak to speak to her and allay her fears about Grace, Marmee finds herself living in the home of the hospital surgeon and his wife, who have grown to love her as their own daughter. Grace tells Marmee of the history Grace and March have together, her words striking Marmee “like a fist.” Marmee recognizes the deception of his letters and understands that he lost his first position because he had been caught with Grace. She is incensed that this woman is providing the truth about her husband and her marriage. When Marmee insists, “He loves you,” Grace explains that he loves only the “idea” of her, of a liberated black woman. Marmee wonders whether she will be able to forgive him “for the years of silence, and the letters filled with lies.”

Chapter Seventeen: Reconstruction

Grace tells Marmee that March’s distressed spirit is preventing him from recovering and that Marmee must find a way to help relieve his guilt and to convince him that he is needed at home. Marmee thinks about how he has failed her “in so many ways” and wounded her profoundly, but soon she becomes convinced that whatever it costs her, she will bring him home. Gradually, March’s condition improves to the point that he is able to tell Marmee about everything that happened to him as she tries to fill him with hope for the future. March, however, insists that he needs to do more to help others who are suffering in the war, a sentiment Marmee recognizes as his effort to assuage his own guilt over his actions on the plantation. She accuses him of being proud and insists that his duty now lies with his family. March admits that he despises himself. Later, Marmee recognizes that she still loves him.

Chapter Eighteen: State of Grace

March’s voice returns, expressing the guilt he feels over the lives that have been lost. He learns that Beth has come down with scarlet fever and that Marmee has been called back to Concord to tend to her. In a note she leaves for him, she reiterates the family’s need for him and implores him to return to them as soon as possible. After March expresses the hope that he can work with her to help the injured, Grace tries to convince him to stop wallowing in his guilt. When he insists that she cannot know how he feels, she tells him that she had played a part in the accident that caused Clement’s son’s death, after the latter tried to have sexual relations with her. She tells him that he must learn to live with his guilt as she has with hers. She insists that blacks must learn to manage their own destiny and that he should go home where he can help prepare northern whites to see blacks as equals. March understands that his daughters, and not Grace, need him now.

Chapter Nineteen: Concord

March returns home, feeling like an imposter since he has changed so radically, and finds that Beth has recovered. He still pines for Grace, however, recognizing that he will never see her again. Surrounded by his loving family, March decides, “I would do my best to live in the quick world, but the ghosts of the dead would be ever at hand.”

“March is Geraldine Brook’s fictional account of what happened to the father of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Ms. Brooks has an afterword and explains that she took some of the missing details-the father being gone-and combined them with some anecdotes from various books she read and on Louisa May Alcott’s father, who held radical ideas for the time and was much-published. From his writings, she drew part of her character of Mr. March, the girl’s father, even though she plays with the timeframe and makes Mr. March 40-ish whereas Mr. Alcott would have been sixty-ish at the same time. So from Little Women and many other sources, she creates the fictional world of Mr. March’s experiences during the Civil War. 

By its nature-Mr. March is in the South during the Civil War-it is brutal. It is graphically brutal, in places, and brutal by inference or relation of a tale, but mostly it is just not the innocent book that Little Women is. At the same time, I have to say that I enjoyed it. 

Mr. March is very idealistic and is somewhat radical in his notions. He is an abolitionist and participates in the Underground Railroad. He socializes with Emerson and Thoreau (which Mr. Alcott did in his real life) as they all live in the Concord area. The book goes back and forth between telling of Mr. March’s time in the South and where he goes and what happens and back in time to his courtship with Marmee (who is much more human and has more human failings in this book than in Little Women). So its sweet and brutal, all at various times. Before he met Marmee, he had an encounter with a slave girl, an innocent one, but a loving one. She reappears near the end of the book and is working in a hospital where he ends up near the end of the book. That provides some thread between his young self and old, embittered, deeply saddened self. While in the South, he works at a plantation that is leased to a slightly crippled Northern man. Mr. March is sent by the Army to help the former slaves on the plantation, who are still working there, in whatever way he can and to educate them. So at the end of their long days of physical labor, he would undertake to teach them reading and writing and a general education. He develops relationships with everyone there, with his simple decency and common goodness and by acting as if all are equal and bringing closer together the somewhat bitter young man who is leasing the place and the black slaves. He improves their lot-in ways large and small-and is saved by them during a brutal encounter where Southern “rebels” put the place under fire and try to take away the slaves they don’t kill. It is an interesting book about the Civil War and one man’s experience of it. It makes Little Women seem somewhat sugary-sweet and very innocent in comparison and I thought to give up reading this when I first started.” 

Diana Rhoades, Resident Scholar 

“March, a chaplain and father living in Concord at the time of the Civil War, enlists on a whim, while touched by the young enlisted in his town preparing to leave. Attached to an infantry as chaplain, his duties encompass far more than administering comfort to the dying in the field. He is caught in the middle of fierce battles where he is called upon to save lives sometimes directly and other times as assistant to the medical staff. 

Early in the story, March finds himself back where he had once been in his youth, a large mansion, owned by a wealthy and cultured man named Clement, which, on his first visit, before the war, had been a source of great pleasures for March: the library, the conversations with Clement and Grace, the mulatto slave. Now the mansion lay in ruins, its rooms filled with ailing soldiers. On his first visit, Grace had had an irreversible impact on him. He meets her again now, as a married man. 

Through all his ordeals and moral discomfort, March writes home to his wife and four daughters, as promissed. He does so dutifully but fails to report any of the horrors of war and even less of the horrors within. His letters are upbeat while his experiences are paiful and morally trying. His inability to tell the truth itself constitutes yet another source of turmoil within him. 

A transfer puts him on a cotton plantation managed by a Northerner and manned by free former slaves. March is involved in teaching the workforce during what spare time he manages to obtain for them between crop duties. What appears to be a hopeful situation at first soon becomes threatened by the usurped locals looking to return the South to its former condition. The farm is in increasing danger while the crops must return a profit at all costs to prove the venture viable. These two diverging forces prove to be the demise of both the farm and March. 

Injured and rescued March is transported, unconscious to a hospital in Washington where his wife is summoned. Slipping in and out of consciousness he is one more time in the presence of Grace who attends him as a nurse. 


A Readers Guide for March

With her critically acclaimed and bestselling novel Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks was praised for her passionate rendering and careful research in vividly imagining the effects of the bubonic plague on a small English village in the seventeenth century. Now, Brooks turns her talents to exploring the devastation and moral complexities of the Civil War through her brilliantly imagined tale of Mr. March, the absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In Mr. March, Brooks has created a conflicted and deeply sensitive man, a father who is struggling to reconcile duty to his fellow man with duty to his family against the backdrop of one of the most grim periods in American history.

October 21, 1861. March, an army chaplain, has just survived a brush with death as his unit crossed the Potomac and experienced the small but terrible battle of Ball’s Bluff. But when he sits down to write his daily missive to his beloved wife, Marmee, he does not talk of the death and destruction around him, but of clouds “emboss[ing] the sky,” his longing for home, and how he misses his four beautiful daughters. “I never promised I would write the truth,” he admits, if only to himself.

When he first enlisted, March was an idealistic man. He knew, above all else, that fighting this war for the Union cause was right and just. But he had not expected he would begin a journey through hell on earth, where the lines between right and wrong, good and evil, were too often blurred.

For now, however, he has no choice but to press on. He is directed to a makeshift hospital, an old estate he finds strangely familiar. It was here, more than twenty years earlier, that he first met Grace, a beautiful, literate slave. She was the woman who provided his first kiss and who changed the course of his life.

Now, he finds himself back at the Clement estate, and what was once the most beautiful place he had ever seen has been transformed by the ugliness of war. However, March’s sojourn there is brief and he finds himself reassigned to set up a school on one of the liberated plantations, Oak Landing-a disastrous posting that leaves him all but dead.

Though rescued and delivered to a Washington hospital where his physical health improves, March is a broken man, haunted by all he has witnessed and “a conscience ablaze with guilt” over the many people he feels he has failed. And when it is time for him to leave he finds he does not want to return home. He turns to Grace, whom he has encountered once again, for guidance. “None of us is without sin,” she tells him. “Go home, Mr. March.” So, March returns to his wife and daughters, and though he is tormented by the past and worried for his country’s future, the present, at least, is certain: he is home, he is a father again, and for now, that will be enough.

GERALDINE BROOKS’S second novel is in every important way less accomplished than her first, ”Year of Wonders” (2001). That book, which dealt with the assaults of plague on a 17th-century English village, derived some of its power from the way its resourceful heroine came to suspect the biological essence of the calamity she was up against: ”Perhaps the Plague was neither of God nor the Devil, but simply a thing in Nature, as the stone on which we stub a toe.” Fearlessness — and experimentation with herbs — saw her through and won a reader’s respect. In ”March,” the ferocious nemeses conjured by Brooks are war and slavery, which, unlike impersonal disease, end up prompting the author and her characters toward a prolonged moral exhibitionism.

Brooks appropriates the absent father of ”Little Women” for her principal character. Like Louisa May Alcott’s Mr. March, Brooks’s version has gone south with Union troops as a chaplain. But he has another, real-life source in Alcott’s father, Bronson, whose slew of Transcendentalist pieties go into the new character’s pack. Brooks’s novel winds up being both counterfactual and counterfictional: Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) depleted his family’s coffers with the 1840’s communal experiment he conducted at Fruitlands, west of his home in Concord, Mass.; Mr. March of ”Little Women” suffered reverses, Alcott tells us, ”in trying to help an unfortunate friend”; Brooks’s March loses his shirt by unwittingly subsidizing John Brown’s insurrection at Harpers Ferry.

The whole mix-and-match affair proves more ingenious than interesting. Brooks has March send falsely cheerful letters home to his wife, Marmee, and their ”little women,” shielding them not only from the worst of the wartime horrors he witnesses but from some of the more stinging rebukes his millenarian righteousness keeps earning him. ”Chaplain, you sure is an innocent man!” exclaims one of the soldiers. March, who lives on vegetables and guilt, must continually learn that Northern troops can be as racist as Southern landowners.

As a young man, March left his native Connecticut to become a peddler. Traveling through Virginia 20 years before the Civil War, he was entertained at a plantation, where he was appalled to discover that slaves, in the wake of Nat Turner’s rebellion, were forbidden to learn to read and write. During the visit he also grew disgusted by his own lust for Grace, a beautiful, ”astonishingly eloquent” slave who had become literate before the ban. When the two were caught teaching a younger slave to read, March was expelled from the plantation, but only after be

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