I first read Gone with the Wind when I was a child.  It was the summer between first and second grade.  It’s a huge book for a seven year old, I know.  I’m not sure how it came to pass that I got a hold of a 1000 page story of war and starvation, of unrequited love and true love, and of children wanted, unwanted, and lost, but I did, and I fell in love with it.  I read it over and over again throughout my childhood, so many times that when I let my old paperback copy fall open, I knew  at once which characters sat in the room where the dialogue was spoken, how that room was decorated, which character would speak next, and what he or she would say.  

The book served as a sort of travel guide to me, a guide to southern culture, and to the southern little girls with whom I played.  I needed a guidebook because I was the child of outsiders, New Englanders no less, who packed in the yad and had idears, instead of ideas.  Never did either of my parents “fix” to do anything, as in “I’m  fixin’ to go to the store.”  Nor did they “carry” people in their cars.  Instead they drove people.  They were openly thrifty, as New Englanders often are, which was considered tacky, if not downright immoral, in my social circle.  So you can see why I needed a little help to fit into what felt like, when I was only seven, a foreign country. 

The book was also a sort of How to Be a Woman to me.  Not only did it help me understand the differences between the people I lived with vs. the people I didn’t, but I think I learned who I wanted to become from the characters in the story.  I wanted to mix Ellen O’hara’s strength in the face of heartbreak with Melanie Hamilton’s ability to love and to trust despite overwhelming evidence that she shouldn’t,  add Scarlet’s drive and intelligence, and bake all that up into a me that was feminine perfection.  I wanted, and still want, to become a “great lady,” like so many of the characters in the book.

I hadn’t given the story even one teeny tiny thought for twenty years at least.  I had been criticized in my college literature classes, and later in graduate school history and sociology classes for loving the book because, they said, Margaret Mitchell was an unparalleled racist, and her story was rife with bigotry.  Never had I noticed this when I read it as a child, so enthralled I had been with the romance and the history of the novel, but I believed my learned associates.  I didn’t want to be guilty of bigotry by association, so I rejected the book and the movie too.  I stopped reading the book, but I never did get rid of it. So my hardback copy, scripted with my name inside the front cover in my adolescent handwriting, has lived quietly these many years on my bookshelves with the Brontes and the Janes, gathering dust, patiently waiting to be useful again.

But things were about to change.  I started to receive small, but unmistakable messages from the universe that it was time to reread my favorite novel of all time.

The first of these was in March when a writer friend of mine announced that he didn’t like the main character in the novel I’m writing.  “You know” he said, “I really don’t like her.”  He thought I should sweeten her up a little because readers (he said) won’t root for a character that isn’t likable.  “Can you think of a book you really liked that doesn’t have a likable protagonist?” he asked.  

I couldn’t, right then, but later I thought, “Well, duh. How about Scarlet O’Hara?” Scarlett is a self-serving, conniving, materialistic character with no sense of propriety, and yet generations of women want to emulate her for her strength.  Scarlett is loved because she is honest, real, and I want my Caroline to be that way too.  Scarlet isn’t likable, but is greatly loved.  The point is that the conversation put Scarlett back on my mind, banging around in my head like the memory of an old friend, lost in an aged argument you can’t remember the reason for.

There’s more.  In April my Dad recommended to me a book of essays called My Writing Life by Pat Conroy (the author of the The Great Santini and the Lords of Discipline) about books and events that have influenced his writing.  My Dad is a pretty good matchmaker between me and books, so I requested it from the library. I got to pick it up from my very own slot on the hold shelf in May.  Guess what I found in the table of contents when I cracked open the brand-new, cellophane-covered book?  A big fat chapter about Gone with the Wind!  (Apparently Conroy’s mother felt the same way about the book that I do, and his life and writing were greatly influenced as a result.) The message to me, though, was, maybe it’s time to reread.    

The messages followed me on our three week family vacation to Germany.  On one hopelessly rainy day, we decided to visit a German Shopping mall.  I was surprised to see that the book store there was dominated by a gigantic display of Gone with the Wind.  They had Gone with the Wind in hardback, Gone with the Wind in paperback, Gone with the Wind in English and German.  Huh?  Why in the year 2013 is a German book store pushing an American civil war Story, a racist American Civil War Story?  Later, when we were in the town of Fussen, the backyard neighbor to our bed and breakfast flew a rebel flag, not the retired Georgia flag or the Mississippi state flag that both feature the Stars and Bars, but the actual confederate flag.  What?  Why?  I couldn’t help but think it might be related to race. Some redneck found his way across the Atlantic to Germany, I thought.   I flew home still wondering.  Why does Germany care about Scarlett O’Hara?  Or is it that her presence there was an act of God for my benefit alone?

The messages got louder after I got home.  One day I turned on the TV and there was Carol Burnett with a drapery rod across her shoulders playing a silly Scarlett to Harvey Korman’s ridiculous Rhett.  Another day I turned on the TV and saw Kelly Clarkson in an episode of Who Do You Think You Are exclaiming in shock that her ancestor was a Yankee (gasp!) and then watched her spend the rest of the episode explaining why she was proud of him anyway.  A third day I turned on the TV and saw Vivienne Leigh resplendent in her own emerald drapery-made gown simpering at the always handsome Clark Gable, playing the exact scene Carol Burnett had spoofed the week before. This was getting to be too much. 

I turned off the TV and went to bed, but I lay awake for a while thinking about the way the red linen spine of my book peeked out from its more illustrious neighbors as if to say “you know you want to.” But I didn’t want to, not really.  My book list is a mile long and I didn’t want to fill my mind with all that racial negativity.  Besides,   I already felt worn out on the issue of race from the evening news.  I had been following the George Zimmerman trial for the racial profiling murder of Trayvon Martin, and Paula Deen had to go and call someone a nigger.  (Come on, Paula!  You must have known better).    

The day came, midsummer, when I could ignore the signs no longer.  The weather was hot and dry, and the kids wanted to go to the pool, but I hemmed and hawed and whined that my Nook wasn’t charged, so I would have nothing to read, and therefore did not want to go to the pool.  With no awareness whatsoever of the energy that had been passing between me and my beckoning volume , Angel #1 walked over to the bookshelves, surveyed what was available, and plucked Gone with the Wind from its place, and held it out to me.  She rolled her eyes and said “read this one. It doesn’t need charging.” It seemed that God himself wanted me to reread the book and now he had resorted to speaking through my children.

I threw my hands up in surrender and said to the ceiling,”Okay, Okay!  I get it!  I’ll read the damn book if you want me to!”  I ignored the she’s-really-lost-it-now looks I got from the Angels, and took the book, and the Angels, to the pool.   

It’s a good thing my children are strong swimmers because they could easily have drowned that day; for all that I was paying attention to them.  I was immediately immersed in an earlier time, a different geography, and an earlier way of thinking.  Just like when I was seven, I was immediately lost in visions of hoop skirts at barbeques, in relearning Scarlett’s rules for the effective management of men, and in smelling the smells of battlefield hospitals.  I was immediately mesmerized.

My colleagues in school were right.  It’s true that the story is remarkably offensive in regard to race.  In the first chapter there is a reference to “darkies, hanging from the rafters, popeyed.”   I lost count of the passages in which Mitchell compares her black characters to monkeys and apes, but I can tell you that there are a whole lot of them.  There is a scene near the end of the book where Ashley Wilkes repeats to Scarlett the great white lie that slavery was okay because slaves were well taken care of by their families.  (Uh, I don’t suppose anyone checked with the enslaved to find out their opinion on that matter?)  The bigotry was so complete and horrendous; I’ve begun to agree with the theory that Margaret’s Mitchell’s “accidental” death while crossing Peachtree Street may not have been an accident after all. 

I find, though, after consideration, that I sort of forgive Margaret Mitchell her bigotry.  The copyright of the book is 1936, so it had to have been written even earlier than that, say 1933 or so, and the world was very different back then.  Like us all, she must have been a product of her time, and in her time the civil rights movement was still twenty-something years away, lynchings were common, and there were still living, still bitter, survivors of the civil war and the reconstruction era to influence her.  Segregation was in full force, so she most likely had very little exposure to the black civil war experience.  How could she have been anything but bigoted? 

Besides, I think Mitchell left at least one piece of evidence that she was not an unsalvageable racist: She wrote the character Rhett Butler.  I think we women writers create male characters that in our minds are ideal, that are our own idea of heroes.   I create tall, silent, pick-up truck-driving, fence-riding cowboys.  Diana Galbaldon likes muscled kilted outlaws who whisper love words in Gaelic, and Jane Austin fell in love with the heroic Mr. Darcy for his protection of her through his social graces. Margaret Mitchell’s hero is the swarthy blockade-running and modern-thinking Rhett, who strives throughout the novel to earn the respect of Mammy, Scarlett’s slave caretaker.  That element of the story alone is revolutionary!  Why would a rich white man care what an old, female slave thought?  Because he believed her to be human, with human feelings and needs, that’s why!  Isn’t it impossible for a complete racist to create a character so enlightened as Rhett?  Somewhere in her subconscious mind, through the fog of her time and culture, Mitchell must have had the beginnings of a sense of justice.     

Mitchell also makes points with me on the issue of feminism.  The Scarlett she created was a successful business woman, a woman with whom we, of our time, can relate.  She, like us, had to take care of her house, her family, her friendships, and keep her small business going, which was obviously more than one full time job.  She, like us, had to stave off foreclosure, pay the taxes, educate her children, and  attempt to keep her marriages happy, all the while being made to feel guilty about having a career.  Sound familiar? Mitchell created in Scarlett an independent woman, someone who took care of herself and did not apologize for it, and isn’t that what feminism is all about?  

What’s more, generations ahead of her time, Mitchell made Rhett Butler a hands-on father, which makes just about any man a hero.  She made him his daughter’s primary caretaker. This is unbelievably forward-thinking, especially in consideration that only in the current generation has father-participation in child care been widely utilized.   Rhett Butler was brought to life four generations ago.  Way to get the ball rolling, Peggy!

I’m so glad I gave in and reread Gone with the Wind.  I’m glad I’ve grown enough to be shocked and disgusted, since my last reading, at Mitchell’s treatment of blacks.  Just like at my first reading, the writing is beautiful and poetic, and I, of course, reveled in the story’s rich details.  I especially noticed this time the lessons of history, like the very current lesson of how terror organizations grow from government enforced poverty, and of how far we have come in the civil rights movement since slavery ended and how far we’ve yet to go.  

There are personal lessons too, about the true nature and men and women and love, and how to recognize the people who love you based on what they do, rather than what they say. (That Ashley Wilkes was a cad and a liar, I tell you!)  In this reading too, I added Mammy to the list of great ladies I want to be like, because she taught me a lesson in motherhood.  She gave everything she had to Scarlett.  She could have gone free, but she didn’t; she stuck around and took care of Scarlett.  Scarlett repaid Mammy’s devotion with a smart mouth and by ignoring her advice at every turn. That definitely sounds familiar. Even so, mammy raised Scarlett to be undefeatable.  I find consolation in that.

The long and the short of it is this: the last time I read the story I was a girl, like Scarlett on page one. Back then, the story was about a selfish, spoiled child who threw herself repeatedly at a man who was wrong for her, and manipulated people to get her own way.  I didn’t really like Scarlett back then.  I was embarrassed for her. 

Now I’m a woman, like Scarlett on page 1037, and the story is about so much more.  Now, I understand the demands in Scarlet’s life because there are similar demands in mine.  I understand that sometimes you can’t help who you love, especially when you are very young.  I understand the necessity of personal sacrifice to protect those you love.  I understand mistakes.  I understand loss.  I understand regret.  Mostly, I understand that a woman doesn’t have to be likeable to deserve love. 

I think if I knew Scarlett O’Hara today, maybe from the PTA or from the neighborhood, I’d admire her. I’d ask her to lunch and I’d pick up the tab, because I know that she’s afraid of being hungry and broke.  I’d tell her about who I loved that I shouldn’t have, and she would say “I never understood what you saw in that guy!” And I’d tell her Ashley Wilkes wasn’t worthy of her, and we’d laugh and have a brandy, and we wouldn’t bother to gargle cologne afterword.   And I would tell her that Rhett would be back, because he always came back, and she would sigh and say she hoped so, and have another brandy.

Welcome home old friend.  I really missed you.