My dad’s mother, now a white-haired ninety year-old woman still living alone in the town just south of Richmond, VA where she was born and raised, had a lot more to do with developing my personal culture than most people realize. Living in Wisconsin, without an accent (mostly, it creeps out), not being a virulent racist, most people outside the South assume that, like my friends from northern VA, I’m not really from the South. But I very, very much am. The house my grandmother and her sisters grew up in is still in the family. It was a farm during the depression, but they can go on at length about its history as a hospital during the civil war, and the old smoke house is now a small civil war museum full of artifacts they’ve run across while working in the garden. Summer trips with Grannie involved visiting battle sites from all three wars (Revolutionary, 1812, Civil) because you really can’t trip in Virginia without hitting a battle field.
Several years back, the movie Gone with the Wind was re-released for a limited theater run. Granny, ever consistent and reliable in sharing culture with her granddaugthers, gathered my sister and me and took us. On the way she asked if either of us had read the book – we hadn’t – and was typically diplomatic and polite with her disappointment that of all the big tomes I gobbled constantly, that one hadn’t made it. “It’s on my list,” I assured her. Then I listened as she told the story of the first time she read it. She was bedridden with a case of shingles and one of her sisters brought over her copy of the book. It was a red hardcover, dust jacket long gone and a little worn. Granny read through it and, having fallen asleep during Scarlet’s flight from Atlanta, will still recount a night spend dreaming that she was sleeping under a bridge in a decrepit wagon, delirious and frightened of an army moving by overhead.
I’ve never pointed out to her that in the book, they spent the night in a gully near the road and the bridge image is from the movie. Good story matters more than nit-picky details, and that’s something I’ve learned from that side of the family.
Granny never gave back the red hardcover of Gone with the Wind, and loaned it to me when I graduated from high school. By this point it was significantly more tattered, the binding broken and peeling off, some of the pages coming loose. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to read a new copy of the book. That one was just too perfect, rife with its own family history. And I spent the entire summer reading it.
There are a few metrics I can use to tell that there’s something seriously wrong with my life. The first canary is whether or not I’m writing. If it’s been a month since I wrote something, things are a bit skewed. But the real canary is reading. If my life is too dysfunctional for me to be reading, start running, the canaries are dead and the mine is about to blow. So when I tell you it took me three and half months to read a single book, I don’t need to say much more about that summer. I will never work in a bank again, and while I didn’t actually set that car on fire, something needed to spontaneously combust and I’m glad the universe chose it instead of me.
I adored Gone with the Wind. I remember that. I remember being a bit jealous that any time I thought about writing something that summer my brain just sorta glooped out of my ear and I played solitaire instead but here was a book that did all the sorts of things I wanted to do. And I remembered enough of it that when other people would talk about it, usually faulting it for glorfying the evils of slavery and apologizing for a terminally broken culture, none of that seemed quite like the book I’d read. But, see glooping brain, couldn’t argue from much more than the movie. And that bugged me since I was pretty sure Gone With the Wind was decent shorthand for what I mean when I say, “Oh yes, I am definitely Southern.”
I got my hands on a slightly tattered, yellowing paperback copy a few weeks ago. I brought it with me to New Orleans, just in case, and then brought it back untouched. Last night I finished me reread and you know what? I was right. This book is brilliant, and fabulous, and most of the things people accuse it of are not its crimes. (Most, not all.) But who am I kidding? I live in Wisconsin. Nobody here has actually read it, and anybody who has doesn’t actually care. This isn’t the book their grandmother read when she was laid up with shingles. They can’t point at characters and go, “Oh I know her. That’s my great Aunt!” I’m near exploding with a need to talk at length about this book, and at best my sister might humor be a touch during a phone conversation.
This is a long roundabout way of saying that I’m declaring this Gone With the Wind Week. I’m going to blather, a lot, about this book this week, and hopefully get it out of my system. At the very least I’m touching in “OMG, I missed the feminism the first time,” “I think you meant to not be racist and missed,” and “Magical Melanie Hamilton.” If there’s something you want to hear me blather about speak up and I’ll oblige. And if you’re not interested, well, there are plenty of cat videos to keep you company while I obsess.
Also, consider this a giant spoiler label on the whole week. Just in case, you know, it’s still on your list.