I’ll start with my conclusion. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind has been the best reading experience I have had in years. Hands down. Why then have I found it so insurmountably difficult to jot down my thoughts? Perhaps it’s the fear that I simply won’t be able to do it justice….
It’s crazy to think that, up until a couple of months ago I had neither read the classic novel nor watched the universally popular film adaptation of GWTW. With a grossly misinformed view that this might be a little too trashily romantic for me (perhaps due to the famous swooning snapshot), it took a discounted Oxfam copy for me to finally pick up, having no idea just how much fun I was letting myself in for.
Not that many of you will need a synopsis but, for ignoramuses like myself; GWTW follows the life and times of quintessential Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara during the American Civil War and the turbulent period of Restoration afterwards. Scarlett is a charming, confident, manipulative young woman, the offspring of French aristocracy on her Mother’s side and Irish ne’er-do-wells on that of her Father; Gerald O’Hara. We witness her survival and that of her family and friends during the most turbulent period of their lives, desperately clinging to the ‘old ways’ and what they represent. For Scarlett this is the red earth and billowing cotton fields of Tara; her home.
Overlapping the action and high drama of war is the passion Scarlett holds for impenetrable aristocrat Ashley Wilkes; a man with his head in his books and the past, unable to come to terms with the changes around him. With her tempestuous relationship with blockader and all around cad Rhett Butler running in sharp contrast, it is for the intrepid reader to discover just which way the wind will blow for Scarlett …
This doorstop, epic novel quite literally has it all. Romance, history, politics, action and even feminism. Gone With the Wind was a bestseller from its publication back in 1936 and has never been out of print, with the Hollywood movie starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh (the very essence of the characters they portray) coming out just 3 years later.
No need for a cast list for this bad boy. Every single one of Mitchell’s hundreds of characters; from the field hands and soldiers to Scarlett and Rhett themselves are so colourfully, wonderfully drawn that even I, with my rubbish memory and lack attention to detail remembered and cared about every last one of them. Even Scarlett; a fickle, unscrupulous, selfish woman is just so imperfect, so flawed in every way (apart from her green green eyes of course!) that you can’t help but hold her close to your heart. Her strength and modernity in comparison with the social norms for women in the American south at the time makes her, flaws aside, an indisputable literary role model. Between her flagrant rejection of social norms and niceties and Rhett’s bulging biceps, I was captivated.
On top of all this and as I’ve said in the past, it makes me so happy when I actually manage to learn something from my fiction reading. Being British, it follows that we don’t necessarily tend to learn much about US domestic history at school (focusing instead on the very short reign of one sensational royal family). The knowledge I’ve gained about the civil conflict and restoration in 19th century America by virtue of reading this book has just been a huge eye opener. Mitchell’s epic has come under criticism for presenting a ‘positive’ slave narrative, where slaves are seen to enjoy their jobs and feel secure in their lives and lot, a point of view that is understandably difficult to swallow. Although GWTW makes some feel uncomfortable in that respect, it didn’t bother to me too much considering that Mitchell’s narrative is essentially told through the eyes of the white, slave-owning confederate classes. If anything it made me think a little more deeply about the slave trade in America; it’s complexities, horrors and implications.
Thought-provoking, breathtaking and heartwarming, I won’t be forgetting this book in a hurry. Now….how long should I wait until I tackle a reread?
Is it possible to have a favourite book? If so, what is yours and why?