Saturday, July 23, 2011

Book 18- "Gone With the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell

After listening to my friend Beth rave about how much she enjoyed reading "Gone With the Wind," I thought I'd give it a whirl... it's one of the longest books on my list, and I figured there was no time like the present to get through one of the longer ones.

It. Was. AMAZING. And this from a girl who tries to avoid reading anything in which war is a central theme, because I somehow manage to find the theme of "life during a time of war" both boring AND upsetting. I averaged about 250 pages per night (a feat I am proud of, although struggling with insomnia gave me plenty of time to read...) but only read it about every 3rd night, despite my best intentions. So it took me almost two weeks to finish.

"Gone With the Wind" focuses on the life of Scarlett O'Hara, a girl born in Georgia to an Irishman and a true Southern gentlewoman. Scarlett takes more after her father than her mother-- she is headstrong, driven, and bossy, speaking her mind and doing more or less whatever she wants. She has all of the marriage-aged men in the county at her fingertips and leads all of them on, but the only one she has any real feelings for is a man named Ashley Wilkes. The story begins with a barbecue and ball at Ashley's family home, and when Scarlett discovers that it is also to celebrate Ashley's engagement to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton, Scarlett devises a plan to convince Ashley to run away with her and elope. Which doesn't go as planned, despite Ashley's declaration of love to her. To make Ashley jealous, Scarlett accepts a marriage proposal from Melanie's brother, Charles. The only one besides Scarlett and Ashley who knows the truth of the encounter is Rhett Butler, a man who was visiting and has a tarnished reputation.

After marrying Charles, Scarlett becomes pregnant but is quickly widowed-- the war has begun, and Charles died in camp of pneumonia before seeing any actual "action." Never having loved him in the first place, Scarlett is more upset about the fact that she has to wear mourning clothes, stay inside, skip parties, and worst of all must ignore the attention of all other men, despite being only seventeen. This last proves to be the hardest "rule" to follow; Scarlett moves to Atlanta to live with Melanie (who is alone, since Ashley has gone off to war) and the Hamilton's Aunt Pittypat. In Atlanta, Scarlett is pushed by social duty to become a nurse to wounded soldiers, and being surrounded by men finally becomes too difficult; at a rally to raise money for the hospital, Rhett Butler appears, and knowing the true nature of Scarlett's heart, he forces her out into the public's eye and starts the rumor mill going. Once everyone already thinks Scarlett has broken the proper mourning decorum, she feels freed and begins regularly attending social functions and flirting with men. This lifestyle doesn't last long, however, as Atlanta is taken by the Yankee army and Scarlett is sent back, driven by fear and poverty, to the plantation home in which she grew up. Ashley had made Scarlett promise she would take care of Melanie and his soon-to-be-born son, and she kept her promise, taking Melanie with her out of Atlanta immediately after she gave birth, though childbirth had put her near death and slowed Scarlett's trip considerably. Rhett had helped Scarlett by stealing a near-dead horse and a cart, but abandoned them as soon as he was sure Scarlett would find her way so that he could join the Confederate forces for a last stand.

It is here that Scarlett changes; with the slaves freed, there is no one to work the fields, with no cotton, there is no money, and everyone in the county is starving. Scarlett works the fields herself while also managing the household, scavenging for food, and attending to Melanie and her newborn son; it is here that she loses sight of what she thinks of as being proper and ladylike, and she swears to do whatever it takes to never go hungry again.

Time passes, the war is lost, and taxes are due on the house which Scarlett cannot afford to pay. She hears that Rhett is somehow wealthy and living in Atlanta, so she goes to find him, hoping he will loan her the tax money; she finds him in jail, suspected of stealing money from the government. He tells her he cannot give her any money, for fear that the new Yankee government will find where he has stashed his cash and take it all, and tells her that he fears he will be put to death as an example. Panicked, Scarlett runs into her sister's beau, Frank Kennedy, and puts a plan into action-- she lies to him, telling him that her sister is marrying someone else, and quickly begins flirting with him, trying to get him to turn his attentions to her. Her plan works and she is very quickly married; Rhett is released from prison and seems amused to find that she married yet another man that she doesn't love.

Scarlett strong-arms Frank in his business dealings, insisting that the customers at his store that owe credit must settle their balances; she also borrows money from Rhett to purchase a lumber mill and to everyone's horror, insists on running the mill herself. She is so cutthroat and successful that she pays the loan back to Rhett in full and also buys another mill and builds a saloon, all things that are "unseemly" and do much to turn the women in town against her. Later, after finding that Melanie and Ashley intend to move north to start over, Scarlett manipulates Melanie into convincing Ashley to move back to Atlanta and take over half of one of Scarlett's mills; he doesn't want to, but caves to the will of the two women. Thus, Scarlett has everything she thinks she wants; close proximity to Ashley and lots of available money.

Scarlett continues running the mills herself, despite having to drive through a bad section of town every day; despite everyone's protests, she continues doing this even when she is pregnant with Frank's daughter, and even after their daughter is born. Things take a turn when Scarlett is attacked by one of the men in the bad part of town; it is here that it is discovered that Frank and Ashley are part of the local Ku Klux Klan, and Scarlett only finds out because the men have gone out and killed the men responsible for her attack. Frank is shot and killed, leaving Scarlett once again a widow, and Ashley is shot but survives. Rhett saves the day; though everyone had looked down upon him for his dealings with the Yankee government, it is these connections that help keep everyone out of jail and safe from execution. Upon finding Scarlett a widow again, he proposes marriage, and despite her determination never to marry again, she accepts. This seals her reputation with the other women in town-- they all think that she has no morals, no sense of loyalty, and no one will befriend her, with the exception of Melanie.

Her marriage to Rhett and what happens thereafter makes up the last 200 or so pages of the book, and I will leave the ending alone-- I'm still struggling a little with how I feel about the book's ending, so I won't unravel it and spoil it here. But rest assured, the ending was well worth all the pages leading up to it.

Scarlett is such an interesting character-- it's hard to like her, knowing how little she cares about everyone but herself (her children included), but it's hard not to like her considering what she went through and how she pulled herself out of it. In our time, Scarlett would easily have been a ruthless CEO of a multi-billion dollar company; in her time her work ethic and determination made her an outcast. Despite her deplorable motivations behind her first two marriages (and even her third, really... she basically marries Rhett because he's rich and he likes her), it's hard to read how the other women tore her down for remarrying after being widowed, because in our time no one would give a widowed seventeen year old any grief for remarrying (although might raise an eyebrow for being married at seventeen in the first place.) I'm still not 100% sure, 1000+ pages later, whether I like Scarlett or hate her, but she was certainly an interesting character to follow.

I'd highly recommend this book to anyone who likes to read for pleasure; be warned, however, that it's length combined with the language of the time (and whole pages of spelled-out hard-to-understand talk from the slaves) make it a little bit of a labor of love to get through. But it is wholly worth the fight.

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