Monday, January 10, 2011

Book Review: Gone With the Wind

When Deus Ex Machina saw that I was reading Gone with the Wind, he said "You're reading a romance?"

I suppose Margaret Mitchell's epic novel of our time could be considered a mere romance, but it's more ... so much more. It's about struggle and survival and overcoming ... and yes, absolutely, about adapting. For people with a Doomer mindset, who are convinced that we are in the midst of TEOTWAWKI Gone with the Wind should be required reading.

The first half covers the characters' experiences as they deal with the privations of southern civilians during the Civil War. I loved how innovative the novel describes the southerners being. In the midst of the war, when the Northern blockades cut-off the southern shipping ports so that nothing is going in and nothing is coming out, the civilians who live in the south and are affected by the severed supply lines, have to find creative solutions. Heavy velvet drapes became a dress. Acorn caps covered in cloth were sewn on clothes in place of buttons. Old carpet pieces were made into shoes. Rags soaked in bacon fat took the place of candles.

What's important to understand is that the South did not manufacture much. The south exported cotton, and perhaps sugar, and maybe sorghum, but everything else from cloth to needles to much of their food, was imported.

Sound familiar? Guess we all forgot, when we decided telemarketing is better than farming, what it might be like when the supply lines that bring us the goods we need to survive are severed.

The second half, which kind of, sort of, just a little, starts to take on some shades of Harlequin, is about Scarlet's bucking of every single southern convention and her success at embracing the new order. Scarlet is a survivor - and in her own words, "As God is my witness, I will never go hungry again!" She pulls herself, and anyone who'll come with her out poverty, and she thinks she's winning. Unfortunately, because she is unscrupulous and often doesn't care on whose toes she is stepping, she ostracizes herself from the very community in which she was raised as a young Southern belle. She does anything (and everything) to make money and have fine clothes, while her community, the former Southern Aristocracy, who'd lost everything during the war, and then were thrust into an impossible existence due to laws that were meant to keep them from rebuilding their former lives, relished in their poverty and wore their patched rags like badges of honor.

On the surface, the book is all of the above, but underneath, it's an amazing history which offers some insight into what life for the dying southern aristocracy must have been like, and in that regard, we, the dying American middle class, can learn some lessons.

In the book, southern gentlemen, like Ashley Wilkes, realize that life as they knew it, the life for which they were born and raised, is gone, and Ashley, in particular, has no idea how he is going to survive in the new world into which he has been thurst. He has no marketable skills, and his classical education is pretty worthless for finding a job. He realizes pretty quickly that he's not a farmer, and if not for Scarlet's browbeating, he would never have been a businessman, either.

I think that's where a lot of us are finding ourselves, today. How many of us only have training and education that would be useful in a society that runs on cheap fossil fuels? The life into which we were born - one in which a good education would lead to all of the richness life has to offer and money enough - is over. Everything we've been told about what constitutes the good life, every piece of what we've been told is the American dream is false. The easy life we all sought where cheap fossil fuels did most of the work for us is kaput, gone just like the easy life of the nineteenth southern plantation owner.

The best truth in the novel has to do with the fallacy that acquisition of money will make us happy. I don't know if that was her intent, but Mitchell is almost blatant in her anti-consumerist commentary. In fact, Rhett tells Scarlet outright, "Even with all of my money, you're not happy." And Scarlet has to admit that she is not, a revelation that actually surprises her.

The characters in the novel hit the bottom. Many of them fell just as far as they could get, and given the height from which they started (financially speaking), it was a very hard landing.

But they pulled themselves back up out of the pit. They repaired. They used up. They made do. And when all else failed, they helped each other.

Gone with the Wind was a remarkable novel. It's one of those that has been in my TBR (to be read) pile for years, and I'm not sorry that I read it. I only regret that it took me so long, but like so many things in my life, when the time is ripe, I find what I need. I don't think I could have picked a better time to have opened the book, and I don't think I would have appreciated it as much as I did if I had read it when I was younger and too full of the American dream to understand the important message Mitchell was sending. My regret is that it took me so long to read the book, and that it took me so long to really understand that message. I get it now, which makes the story that much richer.

As a follow-up, I'm now reading The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane's masterpiece about a Yankee soldier. It should be an interesting contrast.


  1. Gee, I'm so glad you didn't give away the I want to read it ;)

    In all seriousness, good review. Scarlet's grim determination to survive and her resourcefulness always spoke to me when I watched the movie as a young teen...will have to watch it again. I have two books on the go as it is!

  2. Good morning, Julie ;).

    I've seen the movie, too, and it is a very good film - although I haven't seen it in a long while (and, yes, it's in the Netflix queue ;). Given the depth of detail in the book, I think the filmakers actually did a very good job on the movie, and from what I remember, they even did a pretty good job of showing Scarlet's transition. Vivien Lee *is* Scarlet O'Hara ... to a T!

    Where the movie falls short, though, is really making us understand how devastating the Civil War was to the south, and without going into whether or not the southern aristocracy deserved what they got, the point is that we, here in the "First" world could not have gotten where we are had it not been for cheap oil - just as the South would not have been what it was without free labor.

    We need to understand what that means, and we need to be very careful not to repeat history's mistakes.

  3. I highly recommend Cold Mountain as another follow on to reading GWTW. There are similar themes, but also differences in the two books. It's also set during the Civil War, and it's partly an Odysseus-tale. Like Ashley, the female protagonist realizes she hasn't been brought up to know anything useful. Unlike Ashley, she has no masculinity for this to crush. It's a gorgeously written novel, and I think it's ultimately a story with a realistic dose of optimism woven into tragedy.

  4. I agree, Wendy - the majority of society today would struggle to survive if faced with the types of losses you're talking about - cheap fuel, hence imported food, loss of manufacturing infrastructure (and knowledge), reliance on processed and manufactured goods from outside the country - yes, this is happening in Canada, too. We have become quite adamant about purchasing local (manufactured as well as food goods)...we've watched more and more get outsourced, very frustrating.

    On a positive note, I am confident that there is enough of a growing movement that many people will be able to fend for won't be pretty, though. Nice to know there are pockets of people such as ourselves :D Have a great day!

  5. I'm finding much to be learned from books written in the late 1800's and early 1900's. I find most of them on Google Books. I've been concentrating on non-fiction gardening & cooking but will now add fiction to my list. Thank you for the heads up.

  6. Many of the old classics are free online as the copyright period is over. Publishing companies get them for free and make a lot of $$$.
    I've downloaded a few, but I'm still a paper book in bed kind of girl, but the library and op-shops are full of classics.
    I'm going through my pile of books I have meant to read for years now as a decluttering project. I have just completed Dracula and now reading Jane Eyre. Lots of frugal and old skills to learn and implement in my own life from these old stories and they are much more entertaining and modern then I thought they would be.