Monday, April 09, 2007

Because Daisy knows me all too well, when she gave me Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell for my birthday, she made me give her an exact start date because otherwise it might have sat in my bookcase for years before I got to it. Conveniently though, I was going on vacation a few days later and told her I'd take it with me and start it on the plane. I brought along several other books also because I didn't anticipate actually finishing it (it's over 1000 pages) and thought I'd just read a couple of chapters and then move on. I didn't realize just how much it would suck me in. In fact, my reading it became a running joke during my vacation, with my cousins asking me what page I was on every couple of hours and cheering me on to the finish line. It even sparked an interesting discussion with my aunt on racism. Because make no mistake about it, GWTW is incredibly racist. Black people are repeatedly compared to children and various animals (usually apes or dogs), numerous horrible slurs are used freely, and I couldn't decide if the blatant and outspoken hatred was better or worse than the incredibly condescending part-of-the-family crap the plantation owners peddled. I did appreciate the running Uncle Tom's Cabin joke with the Yankees asking how many bloodhounds every Southerner used to run down escaped slaves, and the book tried valiantly to show the Yankees as just as racist, but in a different way. Which was no doubt close to the truth. Likewise, I'm sure many of the freed slaves were at a loss as to how to manage after the war. It was all pretty uncomfortable though, and I kept thinking back to Beloved and how it illustrated how insidious and damaging even the relatively benign brand of racism on show by Scarlett and her ilk was.

Okay, now that's out of the way, what about the story itself? It's definitely ambitious and grand in scale with the Civil War as its backdrop and the account of the toll the war took on Southern society and culture. We witness the end of an age and a birth of a new one, which most of the characters try to resist by clinging desperately to old forms and ideals. At times it reminded me a little of Vanity Fair, and I found myself comparing Scarlett to Becky Sharpe through the entire book. Both are scheming and manipulative survivors determined to make a way for themselves through whatever means are necessary, but I believe Scarlett lacks Becky's self-awareness, which is one reason why Becky was so delightful and allowed the reader to cheer her on wholeheartedly. Scarlett is rather dense, especially when it comes to herself (she takes 1000 pages to realize she doesn't really love Ashley after all) and that obtuseness prevents the reader from ever fully backing her. Or loving her. Despite all that, she is a fascinating character and I suspect in that regard, the reader is represented by Rhett Butler, quite nearly a mirror image of Scarlett, but with the humor and decency and knowledge she lacks, who is equally as fascinated by her as we are.

All in all, I enjoyed it tremendously and can't believe it only took me about four days to finish it. Whew.

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