Books have a knack for arriving into my life at the right time. Like The Cloister Walk when I needed to be reminded of my silent, sacred writing space and different types of community. A friend delivered A Dog’s Purpose just as I was really missing my family and especially its canine members. I finally cracked open Story at the end of the winter semester when I thought my creative resources were completely tapped–and instead found patterns and rules that could keep me engaged.
There’s a similar story behind what led me to finally read that great Southern novel Gone With the Wind.
It’s been over a month since I finished the book, but apparently some greater plan was also in store for this review. I wanted to review it sooner, right after I finished it. But I couldn’t find the words. It’s a long book and my reactions to it over the month I was reading were so varied, I couldn’t sum it up.
But then when I was in Atlanta, Georgia visiting my sister at Georgia Tech family’s weekend, my mom and I made a trip down the street to the Margaret Mitchell house. It’s a preserved apartment building transformed into a museum of Margaret’s life. It’s also where Margaret Mitchell lived while writing 90% of Gone With the Wind.
. . . and now I have to try to sum up what the book, film, and Margaret Mitchell’s life story mean to me.
Part 1: Reading the Book
I knew about Gone With the Wind long before this year. I grew up in Tennessee for heaven’s sake and was already making lists of all the classic American and British literature I wanted to read by the time I was in middle school. I remember that my great-aunt had a copy of the VHS of the movie at her house–it came in a double VHS set with a fiery picture of Scarlett and Tara on the front (now that I think of it, my great-aunt also had a Barbie of Scarlett O’Hara in that scandalous green dress she wears to “court” Rhett Butler). But like many popular things that I encountered in my childhood, I pushed back. I wasn’t ready to be part of the mainstream crowd and read/watch them. Not even when my best friend came over to my house ranting about Scarlett’s business sense and quoting from Mitchell’s book every few minutes.
I watched the film for the first time at the Paramount Theatre’s Summer Movie Festival because it seemed like a big deal, a time to share the movie with my mom and make a real memory out of the experience. It didn’t knock me off my feet–and certainly more problems with it were revealed to me when I studied it in an African-American narratives class the next year at Rice University–but I honestly remember looking at the original costumes they had brought in from a collector than being impressed by the film in any lasting way. Looking back, this resistance to identify or embrace Gone With the Wind probably stemmed from my desire to leave the South. Something in me felt trapped there and trapped by the ways the Southern accent, “y’all,” and only studying Southern American literature could mark me.
Of course, as soon as I really left the South for Canada this year, I have suddenly felt my creative soul drawn back. During a design project for Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof last fall, I watched every film I owned set in the American South: The Secret Life of Bees, Princes of Tides, I don’t even remember what else but I know I watched it more than once . . . I finished Steinbeck’s East of Eden which didn’t remind me of my Southern roots exactly, but did connect me with some sort of legacy. I knew I needed another epic for summer 2014 and that’s when I knew I was ready for Gone With the Wind.
When I told some of my friends what I was reading, I got varied responses. Performance studies friends from the USA said, “Why are you reading that garbage?” My best friend who had read it all those years ago in middle school asked for updates as to which part I was at and what I was feeling about Rhett and/or Ashley at that particular spot. Friends at a church discussion group all stopped conversation about the Holy Grail and King Arthur’s knights of the roundtable to ask for more details about my reaction to Gone With the Wind.
And me? What did I feel? Taken in, immersed in a world I “knew” but hadn’t explored in a long time. Invested deeply in the characters, simultaneously rooting for them and noting their tragic, inevitable flaws.
When I started the book, I was struggling to stand up for myself, to move on from heartbreak and setbacks from the summer. But as I watched Scarlett rough her way through the Civil War, I could see the resilience that we had in common–although I wouldn’t say we have much in common. I could empathize (up to a certain point) with her heartbreak and long-dying desire for Ashley, but more importantly, I could see how Rhett made for a much better match and a much better man. I cheered when Frank O’Hara came riding back into Tara drunk as a skunk after waking up from his post-war stupor and standing up for himself–even though this momentarily uprising ended tragically. And of course, as the last chapter drew to a close in the only way I knew it could, I practically screamed on the streetcar, “Please don’t end this way!”
It’s not a perfect book. I could write a whole post about the problematic depictions of slaves and African-Americans, women, immigrants, Northerners, etc. I could also write a companion post on the many ways Margaret Mitchell’s account of the South might surprise someone reading it to experience racism–it’s not perfect and it’s definitely not politically correct, but it’s not so straightforward either. It depicts another world in all its glories and shortcomings.
So what does this mean?
To me, it means Gone With the Wind is a book worth reading. It’s a book worthy of being called an American classic because it does capture one woman’s view and imaginings of antebellum and post-Civil War Georgia. And her imaginings are so rich and challenging. They don’t paint a pretty picture, but they do paint something worth staring at for a while. Even if you’re only reading it for the pure emotional, romantic value, Gone With the Wind has some lessons to teach–if unlike Scarlett you are willing to listen.