Gone With the Wind: Part One

The more I read, and the more I write, the more I’m convinced that good writing transcends genre. A well-paced work of non-fiction can clip along as well as any Vince Flynn thriller just as a beautifully crafted novel can transport readers to a world as vivid as any historical tale of David McCullough’s. In much the same way, good story telling should transcend the editorial peculiarities of a give age. And yet it’s hard to read a Russian masterpiece like War and Peace or a universally acclaimed novel like Moby Dick and not think of Elmore Leonard’s admonishment to “try [and] leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

So it was with some trepidation that I cracked the spine of Margaret Mitchell’s epic tale, Gone With the Wind, in June 2014 to see what the fuss was all about. Surely a novel that had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (1937) and had sold more than 30 million copies since its publication has something going for it. My aim that week was to understand what made the novel work. Commentary on her one-and-only novel undoubtably runs deeper and wider than my personal reading and writing experiences. Like all readers, though, I know what I like. As with many writers, I know what seems to work in effective story telling. I’ve spent a lifetime, it seems, hearing references to Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, but I had never read GW2 and had never seen the movie.

So with a near virginal approach to this masterwork, I dove in this past summer. What follows are my daily impressions as I read the novel. Here’s what happened:


GW2 Day One:

Successful stories have captivating first pages and gripping opening chapters. Reportedly, after ten years writing the novel Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell spent an additional six months massaging the words of her initial scene. She ultimately settled on the stark and prophetic first line: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm…” So far, she has delivered on that promise. As the opening scene unfolds in the lazy April afternoon of the antebellum south,  Mitchell reinforces the charm of Scarlett even as she shows her petulant side. Layers of Scarlett’s personality are painted on with a combination of bold actions and rich backstory. In lesser hands, such detail could be ripe for skimming. But Mitchell stretches and kneads the story as if she were preparing taffy, as each pull of prose exposes a layer that is too sweet to miss.

The first one hundred pages pulled me along not just with character consistency but also with peach-sweet prose. Even the minor characters receive attention, such as a “snarly-haired woman, sickly and washed-out of appearance, the mother of a brood of sullen and rabbity-looking children.”

Even now, standing just ankle-deep in the story, GW2 demonstrates developed characters and readable prose that had exceeded my expectations. With bedtime fast approaching, Rhett Butler has entered the story. The plot thickens, but as Scarlett herself has said, I’ll have to think about that tomorrow.


GW2 Day Two:

Two-hundred fifty pages into Gone With the Wind, I get the sense that this story demands to be told. Great stories seem to have that universal quality. After spending the first one hundred pages rendering Scarlett O’Hara as a selfish socialite with misguided ambitions, Mitchell now sinks her literary talons into my imagination. If she had placed Scarlett into the antebellum world of New Mexico during President Polk’s Mexican-American War, I might be curious but not compelled to read the story. As it is, when the drum beat of war comes to Georgia just days after the firing on Fort Sumpter, the reader (and I) already know the outcome for the South. So how does a seemingly superficial seventeen-year old cope with the coming war? For me, that question burns through the next two hundred pages.

“Secession, war—these words long since had become acutely boring to Scarlett,” Mitchell writes. Within pages, though, she uses Scarlett’s personality quirks to tether her to historical events that she cannot ignore. Marry Charles to spite Ashley? No problem. Move to Atlanta and endure her sister-in-law Melanie? Of course, if it will further Scarlett’s ambitions. Only Rhett seems to see cracks in her social veneer, and even his ungentlemanly actions are not enough to let Scarlett forswear him forever. Will she never learn? Mitchell’s pacing is forcing me forward to find out. And I’m going willingly.

Some stories demand to be told.