Gone With the Wind: Part Two

GW2 Day Three:

Ellen is dead! Bullets in battle cut down the Tarlton twins! Doc Meade’s shoeless son Phil was killed, too. Am I really subjecting myself to this literary assault? After offering up a complex female lead and submerging her in the wiles of war, Margaret Mitchell is holding my head in the pages of her book and not letting me come up for air. Only four hundred pages in and I feel as if she’s hijacked my imagination.

Mitchell’s success (so far) in GW2 resides in a six-syllable word that supports the best stories. It’s one of my favorite pompous writing words: verisimilitude. By training her eye on the details of the Civil War, and by moving her characters against the backdrop of battles, Mitchell has painted a realistic world on the tapestry of her story. To be sure, she may have taken literary license with life on the plantation or with regional dialects, but my interest doesn’t stumble on the fiction as it is so closely woven into the fact.

I’ve become a part of the story, and I cannot seem to help it. In my mind, there was no way Scarlett would make it through the wagon road back to Tara after Rhett dropped her off. But when she proves me wrong, her reward is a demented father, a dead mother and a decimated house. Of course it has to be this way—verisimilitude in a time of war requires it—but I ache in seeing her expectations dashed against the rocky shores of war.

I willingly started down this primrose path this week, and it has led to that delicious literary heartache and disappointment that great fiction can provide.

Can Scarlett rally to revive Tara? I certainly hope so, or else Margaret Mitchell has a lot of explaining to do. (To be fair, she has 600 more pages to do it.)

GW2 Day Four:

She shot the damn Yankee in the face! Are you kidding me? “Like lightening, she shoved her weapon over the banister and into the startled bearded face. Before he could even fumble at his belt, she pulled the trigger.…Yes, he was dead. Undoubtably. She had killed a man.” It took me a moment to digest that passage. I didn’t see it coming. But I should have.

Great stories seem to make readers squirm with character threats, plot twists, and unmet expectations. The best of the genre, though, produce plot twists from the crucible of character development. While it’s my own reluctance to see Scarlett as someone who would kill a man, Margaret Mitchell credibly planted the seeds for this scene. Any woman who claws her way back home through a battle zone clearly demonstrates steely resolve. Any character who saves her plantation by pulling up her petticoats and callusing her hands shows the reader what she is capable of: ruthless revenge and self preservation. I now see that nothing about Scarlett’s actions is inconsistent with her character. In fact, it defines her all the more.

As I stuff my bookmark on page five hundred in Gone With the Wind, I am appreciating the genius of Mitchell’s story telling skills. By demonstrating Scarlett’s love for the old life, by showing her desire for stability in her little world of barbecues and leisure, Mitchell builds a credible character. Because of this, I’m able to be pleasantly shocked at the depth of Scarlett’s desires, not offended by the implausibility of it.

Great plot twists like those of GW2 sprout from sewing seeds of character and circumstance in the opening chapters. Who else will Scarlett have to cut down to get what she wants?


GW2 Day Five:

One of my favorite Mitchell-isms from Gone With the Wind is when Gerald swears in his Irish brogue the phrase, “God’s Nightgown!” Margaret Mitchell’s use of dialogue seems to be one more reason that GW2 is earning its reputation as one of the great American novels.

Sandwiched between the legacy of Huckleberry Finn and the progeny of The Help, Mitchell uses the dialogue of her characters to enrich the story. Unlike the snappy twenty-first century conversations of Aaron Sorkin, Mitchell’s rich dialogue matches her subject and her era. Long passages between the jaded Ashley and jilted Scarlett flow with ease and importance:

“There’s only one way you can help me,” [Scarlett] said dully, “and that’s to take me away from here and give us a new start somewhere, with a chance for happiness. There’s nothing to keep us here.”

“Nothing,” [Rhett] said quietly, “nothing—except honor.”

In that one nugget pulled from pages of impassioned dialogue, Mitchell reinforces her characters by their interactions. Steeped in emotion and paced with care, character conversations are both believable and informative.

At the same time, her use of dialogue to define character seems anachronistic when she is putting words into Mammy’s mouth or Prissy’s conversations. Phonetic renderings of ethnic dialogue, à la Mark Twain, snag my eye and slow my reading. Over time, though, the translation eases.

Her dialogue seems to work best when it springs from her well-drawn characters. Scarlett’s directness is pure gold, as are Rhett’s retorts:

“Can’t I really kiss you now?” [Rhett asked]

“On the forehead, like a good brother,” [Scarlett] answered demurely.

“Thank you, no,” [Rhett said]. “I prefer to wait and hope for better things.”

After six hundred pages, I’m still eager to read what better things await me in GW2.