Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Margaret Mitchell and Her Impact on America


Gone With the Wind has an interesting legacy, as does Margaret Mitchell. On one hand, we have a universally-known love story that people adore; the Berenstein Bears parodied the film while the book received a mention in the Newberry-winning Number the Stars while the protagonists were playing dolls. We all love Rhett Butler, but his flaws invigorate the story with smirks and sadness. Mitchell kept writing the book and kept it a secret, which I always admire in any writer; telling someone you write is like telling a bully where you hide your chocolates. We get a flawed protagonist who someone wins us over because we look into her head and see how she's thinking, feeling sympathy and compassion.

On the other hand, we have stereotypes enforcing the Southern status quo, where Scarlett O'Hara can justify slavery and keep girls like Prissy in their place. Every black person in the book is either stupid or evil, the Northerners walk all over everyone, and we applaud Rhett Butler when he evades execution for murdering . . . a black man for insulting a woman.

The appearance in Number the Stars is quite troubling; Lois Lowry wrote a World War II novel where the main character helps her best friend and family escape the Nazis in Denmark, a story arguing for compassion and courage. Is Gone With the Wind more interesting than pink-frosted cupcake fairy tales? Yes. If Lowry meant for the novel to reflect the time period, she reflected an uglier aspect than intended for a gentle introduction to the Holocaust. (For the record, I love Lois Lowry's books, especially The Giver; it's just this particular scene that bothers me.)

Readers still love Gone With the Wind, however, because Margaret Mitchell wrote a complex, tragic story. The movie made it more so, with fantastic actors (though to be fair, Clark Gable steals the show as Rhett) and a well-designed setting. We still love moral ambiguity and rascals with hearts of . . . well, silver. And we love a romance where the characters don't have predictable chemistry.

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