I am embarrassed to confess that I didn’t read Gone with the Wind until now. “Real readers” read the book in high school once or twice, and then a few times more over the years. Somehow I always thought it was fluffy romance, perhaps based on the cover art you usually see on the book, perhaps because of the few snippets of the movie I have caught here and there. I have also never watched the movie.
Gone with the Wind is a book of over 1,000 pages, and it took me forever to read it. It takes serious dedication. But I stuck with it and I do not regret one moment of it. Gone with the Wind is truly the masterpiece it is made out to be, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the Civil War in the South.
I am used to a protagonist that I like. The main character, the person you identify with is a likeable, honorable and pleasant person – the good guy. The lead in Gone with the Wind, as we all know, is Scarlett O’Hara. When the story starts in 1861, she is 16 years old. When the story ends she is 28. So, for the most part she is a girl or a very young woman. Scarlett is conniving, petty, shallow, deceitful, pompous, haughty, selfish, prude and impetuous. Throughout the entire book I kept rolling my eyes at Scarlett’s stunts. Then, of course, there is the other flawed character, Rhett Butler, who is the opposite of Scarlett, honest to a fault, arrogant, unforgiving, tough, smart, educated, thoughtful but a boor nonetheless. The two make for a tempestuous relationship and a rollercoaster story.
But Gone with the Wind is really not about Scarlett and Rhett. It’s about the American Civil War from the perspective of the South. We get to know and love the life on plantations in Georgia, where slaves do all the work, and the owners revel in luxury and look down on the working class as “white trash” for the most part. Then comes the war, and first they don’t believe it can touch them. Stonewall Jackson and General Lee have their backs. But the reality sinks in eventually, the Yankees win, and Georgia is starving. There are no slaves to work, no harvests. The armies raided the land of all horses, mules, livestock and food, first the Confederate commissary to keep the war funded and going, then the Yankee conquerors by looting and pillaging. By 1866, Georgia is a post-apocalyptic wasteland and even the richest are starving. The conniving survive.
Then come the carpetbaggers and scallywags – you’ll have to look up those terms – and corruption festers during the years of “reconstruction” when the government comes in and does nation-building in the South. I was amused about the parallels between our efforts in Iraq in the 21st century and the restoration of the South after the Civil War. Neither was successful. Both were disasters for the locals.
Gone with the Wind shows the South, its way of life, its passion and its people, and finally its fall and disappearance.
I have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and I thought I learned about the treatment of the slaves in the South. Now I read Gone with the Wind, and there were no bloodhounds searching for escaped black wenches. What I saw was plantation owners treating their slaves like valuables, providing housing, healthcare, nutrition, community and home to them. When all that was abruptly taken away by the war, the blacks became, for the most part, destitute, corrupt and spoilt. They had never learned how to take care of themselves. Taking care of yourself cannot be legislated. It must be learned.
But I digress.
I cannot tell you how much I learned from reading Gone with the Wind of things I thought I knew something about. Really, I was ignorant. The book brings that part of history to life. Vivid images, experiences as if I’d had them myself, kept jumping out of the pages at me. Reading Gone with the Wind was an adventure. It is a must-read for any person that calls himself a “reader.”
As I usually do after reading a major opus, I get the movie, and I am disappointed about how little below the surface it went. But that for another entry.