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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

We're not wheat, we're buckwheat!

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Gone With the Wind is a tale of love, hate, war, friendship, family, and grit. Its protagonist is Scarlett O'Hara, a Georgian girl with gumption. It chronicles her family and her marriages during the years just before, during, and after the Civil War. Scarlett lives on a plantation named Tara, and when the novel starts, she's the belle of her county, but she can't have the one man she really wants: Ashley Wilkes. Ashley has just gotten engaged to his cousin (apparently it was totally okay back then) Melanie Hamilton, and he is off the market. Scarlett confesses her love, but he is too honorable to go back on his word, but he leaves the door open, telling Scarlett he loves her, too, and this launches them into nearly a decade of desire. Scarlett marries Melanie's brother, Charles, to spite Ashley. She gets pregnant and has a son, Wade, and Charles promptly dies of pneumonia after enlisting in the army. Scarlett moves to Atlanta to live with Melanie and her Aunt Pitty Pat after Ashley goes off to war. Melanie is also pregnant, and Scarlett must deliver her baby as the Yankees are invading and Atlanta is burning. Scarlett escapes with Melanie and Melanie's baby, Beau, to Tara (with the help of one rapscallion Rhett Butler - more on him later) but is stricken with grief upon arrival. She finds her mother has died of typhoid (I think - I get those Civil War era - diseases mixed up with Oregon Trail illnesses) her sisters are ill but recovering, her father is addled in the head from his wife's death, most of the slaves are gone, and Tara is a mess because it was used by the Yankees as a headquarters. All but a few of the other plantations in the county have been burned or destroyed. Scarlett rebuilds Tara, despite several extreme challenges along the way. She can't raise the money to pay the taxes, though, so to avoid losing Tara, she goes to Atlanta to offer herself to Rhett, who is loaded. Rhett almost falls for it, but he is in jail and he is angry that she tricked him, so she ends up stealing her sister Suellen's beau, Frank Kennedy. He has a small store and she believes Suellen wouldn't have helped to save Tara, so she lies to him and tells him Suellen has promised herself to another man. She flirts with him shamelessly and gets him to marry her. She helps him run his business (much to his dismay), saves Tara by paying the taxes, buys a few mills and runs them herself (SCANDAL!) and eventually gets knocked up a second time (MUCH TO HER DISMAY). She has a girl, Ella, who she claims is quite ugly (Scarlett is not especially motherly). She goes back to running the mills. She receives word from Tara that her father, Gerald, has died - turns out Suellen sort of made him crazy by trying to get him to say he sided with the Yankees and he got drunk and tried the jump the fence he always tried to jump and didn't make it. Scarlett sort of tricks Ashley into coming to run one of the mills for her, and Melanie and Ashley and Beau move back to Atlanta. One day, Scarlett is driving to and from the mills alone (she has been asked not to, because shantytowns of disreputable men and women have sprung up after the war and they have been known to attack and rape women, but she needs to go to work!) and she is attacked and her dress is slashed and she narrowly escapes thanks to the help of one of her old slaves who is now free and was hiding there. Frank, Ashley, and several of the other town men (unbeknownst to Scarlett) are in the KKK, which (according to Mitchell, this has NOT been researched as any kind of fact) has sprung up as a sort of vigilante justice system against these groups who were attacking women, as they felt the Yankees weren't taking appropriate action. Frank dies, Ashley is injured, and Rhett has to save everyone from being arrested by the Yankees by telling them that all the men have been hanging out at Belle Watling's whorehouse (which he owns) every week and that they were there. Right after Frank dies, Rhett asks Scarlett to marry him. She is shocked, as she doesn't love him, and her husband has just died (they had very specific mourning times, usually several years to a lifetime for widows) but Rhett says he doesn't want to lose her to another husband, and he convinces her it will be fun, and not like the other two marriages of convenience that she had. She reluctantly agrees. They have a very tumultuous marriage, including a violent miscarriage, a pseudo-rape, a moment where Scarlett is caught with Ashley (to be fair, at this moment she was only crying in his arms and wasn't trying to snare him but she is vilified by the town and her saving grace is that Melanie is too good to believe anything but the best of Scarlett and Ashley), the birth of a daughter (Bonnie), Scarlett's blossoming relationship with Rhett, and Bonnie's tragic death. Rhett and Scarlett realize (at different times) that they really do love each other, but the timing is tragically flawed, and the permanent possibility of Ashley stands between them. It isn't until the very end of the novel when Melanie dies after trying to have another child (despite the doctor's advice that another would surely kill her) that Scarlett realizes that (a) Melanie is actually awesome and (b) she doesn't really love Ashley and (c) she totally does love Rhett. But when she runs home through the fog to tell Rhett, it's too late. He's been hurt by her too many times to see that she's sincere, and he leaves. Scarlett decides that she will return to Tara, and she convinces herself that she can get Rhett back. After all, tomorrow is another day.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Okay, so I forgot/left out a few major points (the book is over 700 pages, after all) like where Ashley gets taken prisoner in the war and Scarlett and Melanie both pine for him and he returns, all dusty and sexy from the war and traipses up to Tara. And Mammy, who is one of the original slaves at Tara who sticks with Scarlett through thick and thin, through good decisions and terrible ones, and who Scarlett plans to return to in the end. And the part where Scarlett shoots a Yankee soldier who's trying to steal her mother's sewing box. And that Rhett and Scarlett honeymoon in New Orleans and they're actually pretty much happy then. And I glossed over Rhett and Scarlett's marriage - like the part where Rhett basically loses his mind when Bonnie dies. Or the part where Scarlett tries to hit him because he tells her maybe she'll miscarry after she's decided she's actually thrilled that she's having a fourth child and she actually finally wants one and she loves him but she falls down the steps and gets really sick and breaks some ribs and he's a wreck and he's so worried about her and he tells Melanie that he loves Scarlett but she NEVER KNOWS because when she gets better, HE DOESN'T TELL HER that he was so worried for her and she doesn't tell her she really loves him because she's so worried he won't reciprocate, or he'll bring up Ashley.

But those are all REALLY great parts, and you have to read the book yourself if you want to experience them for REALZ. Hokay? Seriously, the book is fantastic. It falls somewhere between low-level romance novel meets gripping war epic meets fascinating snapshot of a historical period meets the glorious glorious (did I mention GLORIOUS) south and its perpetual pride.

I loved this book. If you've talked to me in the last few weeks, I've probably told you about it. It was gripping, well written, and had great characters. Even though I had a rough time with the ending and I felt Scarlett didn't get her fair due (full disclosure: I cried for literally the last HUNDRED pages) and like no one really truly understood her but ME, I really really liked it. And for those of you who have seen the movie, scrap it from your mind and go read the book. The movie is fine, but the book is a masterpiece, and I guarantee you will probably feel differently about Scarlett after reading the book.

A few leading ladies/gentlemen other than Scarlett:

-Melanie - Okay, so Melanie (aka Melly) totally comes off as a NAMBY-PAMBY in the movie (think Beth at the end of Little Women) but she is actually the glue that holds EVERYONE together. When Scarlett shoots a Yankee soldier at Tara, Melanie, who has just given birth a few weeks before and is seriously unwell, appears on the stairwell dragging her brother's enormous sword. And Scarlett's like, whoa! Melanie's got some spirit in her after all! And she loves everyone, really and truly, and while that's kind of annoying at times, she really is good at heart. She's great with children, and her desire for more of them is what does her in, which is really sad. She loves Scarlett, even when Scarlett is SERIOUSLY unlovable and doesn't deserve it, and she steps up in times of need (handles the KKK almost arrest night/husband getting shot and having to pretend he was at a whorehouse like a CHAMP, lets Rhett cry in her lap when he's an absolute mess over Scarlett miscarrying and falling ill) and she embodies both the traditional image of a Southern lady from before the war and the true grit that is required of a Southern lady after the war. Melanie, I wish you were real, because I think we would be true friends.

-Ashley - Ashley also comes off as a NAMBY-PAMBY in the movie, and he seems a little addled. Granted, he is a bit of a space cadet at times in the book, but he is kind and smart and gentle and philosophical and honorable, too. And even though he knows he shouldn't, he really feels something for Scarlett - whether it's love or infatuation is never really clear - and this causes him a LOT of trouble. He fights in a war he doesn't believe in because he honors the South and its values, and he tries hard to be a good husband, though he's really quite bad at business and farming and pretty much anything other than being a well-read country gentleman. All in all, he's no Rhett, but he's more reliable, softer, and definitely a good match for Melly. (And probably who I'd marry if I had my choice of the men in this book. After all, we're both BOOK-LOVERS, duhh!)

-Mammy - while she's definitely a type-cast character, Mammy is a fabulous fabulous personage. She's tough, and she's gritty, and she is one of the few people who puts up with Scarlett and puts her in her place. She comes to live with Scarlett and Rhett, but she doesn't like Rhett at ALL. Rhett buys her a red petticoat in New Orleans on the honeymoon, and he gives it to her. She refuses to wear it until she bonds with Rhett over Bonnie's birth. She's so delighted that Rhett isn't mad it's a girl (boys are favored for a man's first child) that she reappears rustling and bustling in her new petticoat. ADORABLE.

-Will Benteen - he's one of many Confederate soldiers that appear on Tara's doorstep after the war who have no place to go. He falls for Carreen (one of Scarlett's sisters) but Carreen's love died in the war (Stuart Tarleton) and she never really gets over it. She eventually joins a convent and he marries Suellen (who has made herself quite hated due to her inadvertently causing her dad's death) so that he can stay at Tara and keep running the plantation. He is solid, hard-working, and an all around really good guy. He understands Scarlett, and he understands her love for Tara, and he keeps it going after she goes back to Atlanta.

-Rhett - Rhett is, in a word, a scallawag. But he is not so simply described. He spends a good portion of the book seeming like a rogue but secretly going around doing nice things for people and making himself invaluable. He really does passionately love Scarlett, but too many things stand in the way for him to show it in a true way. He's dangerous, intense, and sometimes violent. He takes to drinking occasionally, and when something sets him off, he's in a temper. His best moments (like Scarlett's) are generally behind the scenes, which keep everyone from knowing how great he is (saving the KKK men, raising Bonnie with a maelstrom of love and affection, prostrating himself to the town to make up for his previously terrible reputation when he realizes that Bonnie's acceptance by society will be impossible if he doesn't, falling apart when Scarlett is ill and he can't do anything). He's the husband you sort of wish you could have a slightly tamer version of, but you know if you tamed him he wouldn't be the same. Definitely a tough nut to crack.

I realized that the last 4 books I've read have been about wars: War and Peace - Napoleonic war, Lés Misérables - not technically about a war, but a great deal about the post-Revolution France and deals with the June rebellion, Slaughterhouse-Five - about World War II, and this one, obviously about the Civil War. I was struck by how each author made the book ostensibly about something other than the war (people's lives, other events, love, children, family) but how the war pervaded every aspect of the characters' existences. Sombering.

I was also reminded of the part in Slaughterhouse-Five where Vonnegut says that he tells his sons never to participate in any massacres or let the idea of future massacres fill them with glee. The war lasts so long that many boys who are not old enough to join up at the beginning must fill the ranks, and even later on, when the Confederate troops are on their last legs, the oldest men and the youngest boys must join the fight. We all hope our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and grandfathers and grandmothers will never be expected to fight, but in this war that tore our country in half, no man was safe from the fray.

There's a tender moment at Gerald (Scarlett's father)'s funeral where Will keeps the town from erupting into judgment of Suellen and protects Scarlett from having to hear the "clods dropping on the coffin". One of the town biddies says "as long as you don't hear that sound, folks aren't actually dead to you." Will is really so sweet.

The title to this post is courtesy of Grandma Fontaine (another great character, but I'll let you discover her yourself). She tells Scarlett that the two of them are buckwheat, not wheat: "When a storm comes along it flattens ripe wheat because it's dry and can't bend with the wind. But ripe buckwheat's got sap in it and it bends. And when the wind has passed, it springs up almost as straight and strong as before."

I listened to a lot of Alison Krauss & Union Station while reading this book. It was the perfect soundtrack to this novel.

There are so many great lines in this book, I can't possibly share them all, so I'll just give you this last one:

"She had never understood either of the men she had loved and so she had lost them both. Now, she had a fumbling knowledge that, had she ever understood Ashley, she would never have loved him; had she ever understood Rhett, she would never have lost him."

Onwards to windmills, Sancho Panza, a world where fantasy and reality are never quite clearly defined, and what the French call Don Quichotte.