Fiction Review: Gone with the Wind
Book By Book
It took me five weeks – and multiple reading challenges for extra motivation! – but I finally finished reading Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Given the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, has become a beloved icon of classic American literature, and has been highly acclaimed for over 80 years now, I shouldn’t have been surprised by how much I liked it. But I was blown away by this engrossing novel, and in 950+ pages and five weeks, never once got bored of reading it. In fact, I am now missing Scarlett, Melanie, Rhett, and the rest of the gang.
I am guessing that most people know the basic plot (I saw the movie about 35 or so years ago and remembered the highlights), but I will provide a quick recap. Scarlett O’Hara is a classic Southern Belle, living on a prosperous cotton plantation called Tara in northern Georgia with her parents and two sisters (and lots of slaves). It is 1861, and Scarlett is 16 years old, blossomed into a beautiful and brash young woman who knows the power she has over men. She is happiest surrounded by beaux, flirting with them all, and delighting in the effect she has on them. The novel opens with a barbecue at the neighboring plantation, Twelve Oaks, owned by the Wilkes. Scarlett is surrounded by men, as usual, but the one she really wants is Ashley Wilkes, a quiet, scholarly young man whom Scarlett grew up with. At this event, Ashley gets engaged to Melanie Hamilton, a small, plain young woman. The Civil War soon interrupts all their lives, as the men go off to fight, and the women are left to try to manage the households, as shortages of basic supplies make everyday life difficult and the violence and devastation of the war affects civilians. Scarlett heads to Atlanta to move in with Melanie (whom she hates, of course) to help care for Melanie’s Aunt Pitty, an elderly and helpless woman. The novel continues through the war, the burning of Atlanta, and on into the dark days of Reconstruction. Scarlett changes from a delicate flower to a strong, fierce, determined woman, as she does what she has to to save her family, friends, and Tara. All along, she continues to hate Melanie (though the two become quite close in facing adversity together), secretly love Ashley, and more and more, is attracted to a much-hated handsome Scallawag named Rhett Butler.
So, there’s almost 1000 pages in one paragraph. I’ve been careful to avoid any spoilers and just stick to the bare outline of the plot, but SO MUCH happens in this novel! It is filled with unexpected plot twists, suspense, and surprises. Mitchell has crafted an exquisite novel filled with three-dimensional characters that you come to care for (or hate, or in Scarlett’s case, love and hate, alternatingly!). For such a long story, it is surprisingly agile and fast-paced, filled with action and completely engrossing. It’s funny, too, with plenty of passages that made me laugh out loud in surprise. Mitchell’s writing is engaging and insightful, as in Rhett’s musings about the realities of war and here, where she describes the Southern gentility during the barbecue:
“Men and women, they were beautiful and wild, all a little violent under their pleasant ways and only a little tamed.”
This is also a work of historical fiction, though, and I learned so much about the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. I had no idea of the darker side of Reconstruction – the corruption, political machinations, and the military rule over Georgia and other Southern states. Nor did I realize just how much ordinary people suffered during the war and after. Of course, as you might expect of a novel written in the 1930′s, the racial picture drawn in the story is in sharp contrast to our modern sensibilities. The slaves that work at Tara and most of its neighboring plantations are happy in their roles and well taken care of, with the white characters often mentioning how the simple-minded “darkies” need structure and direction. In fact, most of the main black characters in the novel choose to remain with their masters after the war ends and they are freed; most field slaves flee but most house slaves stay. As horrifying as all this is, I accepted the way the story is told as a product of its time, both the 1860′s in which is was set, and the 1930′s when it was written. If anything, it is perhaps an accurate picture of how most white, wealthy Southerners thought at the time.
Margaret Mitchell brought to vivid life this singular period of American history, in this singular place. She opened my eyes to the effects of the war and its aftermath on real people, most of whom went from living wealthy lives of leisure and beauty to poverty, grievous injury (or death), and starvation. And she does all of this through an incredibly complex character, Scarlett, who is selfish and shallow (“I’ll think about that tomorrow!”) but can also become a fierce and loving protector when her friends and family are threatened. It’s a love story, a fascinating history, and a compelling family saga. I thoroughly enjoyed reading every page of it. Now I am eager to re-watch the movie adaptation!
959 pages, Scribner
This was my first book read for my 2019 Big Book Summer Challenge (quite a start!). There is still plenty of time for you to join the fun, too! Check out the details at the link.
Listen to a sample of the (very long!) audio book, from the opening of the novel.
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