Monday, May 1, 2006

Book Review - Gone with the Wind

I decided to make a doc file and collect my reviews of books on my list that I have read. Here I will include my review of Gone with the Wind, which I finished, much to my surprise, today, a few weeks early. Be forewarned, spoilers ahead.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. In some ways it is very much like the movie. The basic plot is the same. However, the characters are richer. This is understandable considering the movie has only a few hours to tell the story Mitchell took over 1000 pages to tell. The book begins in 1861 with Scarlett as a young, fresh, and flirty girl of 16. Ashley Wilkes is her first real crush and she marries his cousin Charles in an attempt to make Ashley jealous. Her first marriage ends after only few weeks when Charles dies from pneumonia while training in the confederate army. However, unlike in the film, Scarlett bares him a son named Wade for whom she cares very little. She spends from 1861 until 1864 mostly in Atlanta trying to enjoy a little of the business the town has to offer much to the dismay of the other ladies of the town who believe Scarlett should be mourning her husband quietly. As General Sherman's army marches towards Atlanta, Scarlett remains to keep her promise to Ashley to watch after Melanie as she gives birth. It is only through the cunning and bravery of Rhett Butler, a spectator and hated scoundrel of the town, that Scarlett, Melanie, Wade, and Melanie's baby escape Atlanta at its fall. Rhett joins the Confederate army while Scarlett returns home to find her mother deceased from Typhoid, her two sisters recovering from the same illness, her father having lost his mind, all but 4 of their slaves gone and the plantation almost completely desolate and destroyed. But with the house still standing, she scavengers abandoned neighbor's properties for food and begins trying to rebuild their lives and keep food on the table. After the war ends in April of 1865, the scalawags, carpetbaggers and officers of the Freedman's Bureau descend on Georgia and take over all political and legal power and often abuse their power. They raise the taxes on Scarlett's plantation Tara by 3000%! To save her beloved home, Scarlett once again ventures to Atlanta and, when Rhett refuses her the money, she marries Frank Kennedy for his money. She borrows money from Rhett (unbeknown to Frank) to buy a lumber mill and becomes a shame to all the women in the town as a full-fledged business woman. As the newcomers to the south take hard revenge on the native southerners in taxes and legal abuses and finally in failing to criminalize freed slaves who commit crimes such as rape, the Ku Klux Klan is born as the white native southerners feel they must take the law into their own hands. Atlanta becomes a boiling tense city as Scarlett gives birth to her second child and gives Frank a daughter named Ella. She returns to work shamefully driving herself to and from her mills. When she is attacked and molested in a semi-robbery in the woods, Frank, Ashley and the rest of the Klan bring their own justice to the white man and the black man who attacked her. It is only the cleverness of Rhett that the Klan members escape Yankee justice but not before Frank has been killed. On the day of Frank's funeral, Rhett proposes to Scarlett wittingly pointing out that he "can't go all his life waiting to catch her between husbands." Scarlett, driven by his vast wealth and a passionate kiss agrees. After a honeymoon in New Orleans and the building of their own mansion in Atlanta, Scarlett gives Rhett a daughter named Bonnie and then proceeds to refuse him relations both to save her figure as well as to keep her love for Ashley. Having been rejected despite all he has lavished on her, Rhett turns all his attention and devotion to Bonnie, spoiling her beyond comprehension and finding physical comfort in the city house of ill repute. Scarlett and Rhett have a poor marriage for several years in which they fight often and communicate very little. Rhett rebuilds his tarnished reputation in Atlanta for the sake of his daughter and Scarlett finds herself friendless, isolated and shamed from her old friends by her conduct and flaunting of her wealth and abandoned by her new scalawag and Yankee friends by a turn of political power. (In 1871, the Yankee Republican governor resigned and fled north and by 1872, a Democrat native Georgian had been elected.) Scarlett's only real remaining friend is Melanie, who has stood strong by her for years admiring her strength and passion and appreciating all she did for her when they were at Tara. While riding her pony, and with the consent of Rhett to try to jump a higher beam, Bonnie is killed. Scarlett takes her grief out on Rhett calling him a murderer and Rhett sinks into an abyss of drunkenness and grief at the loss of his beloved daughter. It is only shortly thereafter that Melanie miscarriages and dies. Scarlett, now free to have her beloved Ashley, realizes that Ashley wanted no more than her body and she had been pursuing a fantasy for about 12 years. She runs home to Rhett realizing how much she truly loves him only to find that a sad and very tired Rhett's love for her has worn out and he is leaving her. The book ends with her determination to somehow get Rhett back.

Most people are quite familiar with the general plot as they have seen the movie. But here are some observations from the book. The characters are much richer. Scarlett is not simply a spoiled brat who becomes a money-obsessed wench. She was young, impressionable and made choices that pushed her into circumstances she was not ready for. She became a wife and widow at 16 and a mother at age 17. From 18-19 she works in a hospital filled with the stench of gangrene, bacteria and death watching men die. She, almost single-handedly, delivers a baby from a very difficult birth and in the same day flees a burning Atlanta with an unconscious Melanie, a child, a newborn, and a fairly useless slave. By 20 years old she has lost her mother to death, her father to insanity and her whole world as she knew it and she must scrounge and scrape just to eat and feed a house of people all of whom depend solely on her. All this hardens the once young and carefree girl into a determined and hard woman. She lets the evils and trials of the world change her and becomes driven solely by the fear of ever being hungry or cold again. It is difficult to sit in judgment on Scarlett for it is hard to know how we might be after such ordeals. Melanie remains much the same throughout the novel - sweet, kind and completely Christian to anyone not Yankee. Ashley changes as his world falls apart and he is unable to cope with it. He becomes depressed and forlorn unable to adapt as Scarlett does. Rhett changes his spots as he desires others to see him and it is only in the final chapter of the book that Mitchell removes any facade from him for the reader to see his true self.

The book is very accurate as far as I can tell with regards to its geographical and historical references. It would be a wonderful supplement to any study on the Civil War. I was taught the Civil War primarily from a northern perspective. While certainly slavery is evil, I found it interesting to understand that the South was not simply fighting for its property but for its way of life as it knew it. While I cannot sympathize with its slavery, I can sympathize with humanity struggling for sanity in the world it knew and being crushed by the insanity of its world turned upside down. The sheer fortitude of Melanie through such turbulence forces the reader to never deny her respect for this. Mitchell calls her "a legend--the gentle, self-effacing but steel-spined women on whom the South had builded its house in war and to whose proud and loving arms it had returned in defeat." I cannot help but wonder if the North caused its own troubles by taking such revenge on the South. Would the KKK ever have begun had "reconstruction" been different?

Scarlett certainly is a strong woman but it is not until Melanie's death that Scarlett herself realizes how much she has depended on Melanie's strength. It seems as if Mitchell is saying that, for as strong as a woman as Scarlett is and as weak as Melanie has always seemed, Melanie had even more strength. It took more strength to be kind and charitable with what little she had than it did for Scarlett to hoard her money and spend it on her own luxuries. It takes more strength to be as forgiving as Melanie and see so much good in others. Furthermore, it is Melanie who lives happily as Scarlett finds only unhappiness as she pursues another woman's husband and money. As Rhett puts it, Scarlett is "throwing away happiness with both hands and reaching out for something that would never make her happy." Money does not make her happy, nor does Ashley nor political friends nor all the luxuries she piles upon herself. Like her beloved Tara and the south, what she finally finds to make her happy is the security and warmth found in embracing arms. For the south it is the embracing arms of running its own state and enjoying its own traditions and etiquette. For Scarlett it is the strong, secure and loving arms of Rhett. Arms she neglected, abused and discarded only to discover them gone when she really wanted them. May we all always remember what truly matters and where true happiness is found and not let fears drive and control our life. If we do, it is no longer our life and bears only the shell of life itself and we will find ourselves in the same changed and ruined misery Scarlett did.

Overall I have to recommend the book to everyone. It is a fantastic read with laughs and tears. Its historic accuracy is refreshing as history comes to life around characters you come to know and love (and I'm not even a huge history fan).

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