Thursday, May 28, 2009

One More Book Recommendation -- Gone with the Wind

This is my final book recommendation before this year's NABAACD on May 31. I would be most remiss if I did not mention this book. It's a big book, a big good book. It won the Pulitzer Prize. It was the basis of a movie that won ten Oscars. It has been a reliable best-seller for over seven decades -- it's now #5,653 in Amazon's bestseller list (and for Amazon, that number is up there).

It's Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, and if you choose this book for sharing a coffee with on Sunday, you've done well indeed. But watch out. If you finish Chapter I, you will have to read Chapter II. And so on, and so on, until a barista taps you on the shoulder and tells you that the coffee shop is closing. (If you finish GWTW by the time you finish your coffee, you're a naughty reader because you just skimmed the book. Some books take skimming as a high insult.) GWTW is like the movie Titanic -- it's long, but it's so compelling that you don't care that it's over 1000 pages.

What makes GWTW a great book is not only the sheer storytelling, it's the highly dramatic historical setting -- a time when this nation was, if not literally torn in half, at least psychically and spiritually so -- and it's the characters. Margaret Mitchell knew that if a reader can't care about the characters, nothing else in the story matters. A rip-roaring plot with characters as flat as tortillas is as fulfilling and memorable as a roller-coaster ride at Six Flags.

Scarlett O'Hara is more than a spoiled Southern belle. Rhett Butler is more than a charming rogue. Ashley Wilkes is more than a golden-haired hero on horseback. And Melanie Hamilton Wilkes is more than a sweet timid mousewife. Each of them is as layered as a Russian nesting doll.

Scarlett is not a role model. She is often shortsighted and thoughtless, she is neither a loyal friend nor a sensitive mother, and she is tone-deaf when it comes to her dealings with men. But she is also capable of kindness and loyalty, of guilt that she is not living up to her mother's loftly ideal, and of heartbreaking unrequited love for Ashley. It is the last most of all which keeps her from being a total B-I-T-C-H. Who among us hasn't pined for the unattainable person? Who hasn't agonized that the one you love loves someone else more?

I do have to write about GWTW's greatest flaw, though, so it doesn't shock you. While Mitchell was psychologically astute when it came to the major white characters, her depiction of black characters is not just politically incorrect -- it's just plain incorrect, period.

The black characters are compared to children and apes and bloodhounds with "unerring African instinct." The "good" ones live for serving their white masters, and the "bad" ones are ungrateful for the care their masters have given them. Both Scarlett and Rhett utter the word "nigger,"* and Melanie would rather abandon her beloved South than have her son go to school with "pickaninnies." (Of the four major characters, only Ashley says nothing that is racist.) Did I mention that the Ku Klux Klan are the heroes in this book?

But still...but still...I forgive GWTW this flaw, a flaw which would have made me stand up and scream if this had been a lesser book. That's how great it is. Even black female readers forgive the book. We all live in the twenty-first century; we know that racism is sheer foolishness. Don't feel guilty for reading and enjoying GWTW.

I am not sure where I'll be going or what I will be reading for NABAACD. I am sure that I will let you know what happened. Have a happy NABAACD, everyone!

* I debated with myself today whether to spell out this word or use the euphemism "N-word." I chose to spell it out because I am a writer and words are my tools -- all words, the grand and the base and the lovely and the ugly. Euphemisms for vulgarity fool no one and treat the readers like infants.

1 comment:

  1. I recently reread this glorious book and concur with you on all points! As far as the racism, though, the reader has to keep in mind this novel was written 83 years ago. That doesn't make the attitudes expressed in it acceptable--and some passages are deeply cringeworthy--but it does make for a more interesting historical study.

    To truly understand what America was like in the age of slavery, you need to get inside the mindset of those who lived through it. It's truly amazing how erroneously humans are capable of thinking when certain concepts (like the general inferiority of blacks) are ingrained in their culture.

    When I was little and studied the Civil War, I simply couldn't understand how or why anyone would have wanted to fight a war to preserve something so obviously wrong as slavery. GWTW was the one book that made me understand (but of course still not approve) how people felt in the South.