Gone With the Wind

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Yet another book picked from the New York Times shortlist of fiction whence they asked their readers to pick "the best book of the past 125 years". Which makes seven to go.

Although this is not so much a book as an experience. (My library's edition was 959 don't-drop-in-on-your-foot pages.) I'm not familiar with the standards of its time, but it's surprisingly racy. (Also, by coincidence, kinda racist. More on that in a bit.) It was the only novel written by Margaret Mitchell that was published during her lifetime.

Set in Georgia over the 1860s and early 1870s, it centers on Scarlett O'Hara, privileged daughter of a well-to-do plantation owner. In her orbit are saintly Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, rapscallion Rhett Butler, effete Ashley Wilkes, and a host of supporting characters. Mitchell does an excellent job of characterization; I felt I knew these folks almost as well as I know people in my own family.

But mainly Scarlett, of course. I kept coming up with adjectives to describe her: scheming, self-centered, vain, flighty, delusional, cold-hearted, dishonest, manipulative, … well, I could go on. And so will you if you read the book.

Mitchell also does a great job of describing Georgian society, both during and after the Civil War. Especially early in the book, it's clear that the O'Haras and their peers occupy the tippy-top of the social milieu, a structure that's built on land-owning, cotton-growing, and (duh) slavery. It's also clear that they have a totally cockeyed view of the rectitude of their system, and its chances against the North, if things came to war. As (you may have heard) it did.

Scarlett's too occupied with her personal issues to pay any attention to that. ("Fiddle-de-dee, I'll think about that tomorrow.") She's infatuated with Ashley, and infuriated when he pops the question to Melanie instead. This sets her on a long and tangled romantic odyssey, which keeps getting knocked off course by larger events. You know, like the Civil War. And then Reconstruction.

The war, especially, is presented in all its gritty horror. Sherman's march across Georgia, culminating in the burning of Atlanta, is described from the South's point of view, mirroring those Kubler-Ross stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) to a T.

Mitchell puts the n-word in the mouths of her characters a lot. Black dialect abounds. Her telling of history is clearly South-sympathetic, especially in describing the dysfunctional Reconstruction era. The birth of the Klan and its terror? Regrettable, but a completely understandable reaction to Yankee oppression and corruption. (Bad Yankee behavior granted, Margaret, but you needn't pretend they didn't have some legitimate gripes against the Confederacy, and they certainly were correct that ex-slaves wouldn't fare well without Federal protection.)

On the other hand, many black characters are described with sympathy and respect. The famous "Mammy", for example, seems to have much more sense and wisdom than nearly all the other characters.

Last Modified 2024-01-16 4:53 AM EDT