I just finished EL Doctorow's (no relation) magnificent Civil War novel The March. Doctorow has a knack for writing big, unflinching novels about race politics in America (see, for example, his alternate history Houdini book Ragtime), but he's transcended himself with The March.
The March is set along the great march south in the last days of the War Between the States. Doctorow's March is a diverse nation, and Doctorow fearlessly expands his cast of characters to encompass the whole of it. There are criminals and madmen, bold freed slaves and terrified ones. Generals and corporals, patriots and deserters. Racists and opportunists. The brave and the cowardly. Lovers, despicable crooks, gifted artists, compassionate and dispassionate military men and doctors. Even the spear-carriers are vividly drawn and the main characters are as vivid as sunrise through the smoke of a burning field.
This is a huge book, with so many sub-plots and twists that it's nearly impossible to hold in your head at once (I recently read The Creationists a book of Doctorow's essays about literary and scientific creation, and it made me wonder just how much research and process he must have gone through in creating this incredible tome). The historical details feel real and the book is an education in itself on that score.
I listened to actor Joe Morton's wonderful unabridged reading of this book. Morton is a gifted voice talent, able to handle the comic relief and the gravitas (he's very good as both Sherman and Lincoln) with equal ease.
I love Doctorow's "little" books (for example, the tight and sprightly Book of Daniel, a mashup of the biographies of Abbie Hoffman and the Rosenbergs), but as he progresses along his path, he's writing them longer and weightier, and never disappointing.