Mammy Dearest

D.J. Carlile is the author of a new translation of "Rimbaud: The Works," published by Xlibris.com

The 1,024 pages of Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" have given birth to a major Hollywood motion picture, a musical, an authorized sequel, famous comedy skits featuring Carol Burnett and countless imitations, from "Jezebel" to "Raintree County." It has now produced that literary anomaly: a heartfelt satire. "The Wind Done Gone" is a sleek tale, a mystery novel (whodunit and when), a palimpsest, a bodice-ripper, a meditation, a confession. It is the journal of a soul's journey. Alice Randall has crafted a gleaming pendant to a tale that has permeated our national consciousness since 1936.

"Gone With the Wind" captured the attention of readers from all walks of life and sold millions of copies in a depressed economy. Its basic psychological truth and attention to historical detail buttressed a tale that in lesser hands would have been little more than a Civil War soap opera. Mitchell took her story and its characters seriously.

One doesn't need a familiar, detailed recall of the novel or film to enjoy or follow "The Wind Done Gone"; it moves under its own power. The original story is merely the pretext, and some knowledge of it is helpful but not essential. This "unauthorized parody" could very well send readers back to "Gone With the Wind" for another (or a first-time) reading of Mitchell's epic novel. It does, however, put a fresh spin on what is remembered for those in the know.

The Mitchell estate has been protective of the original book's mystique. After Houghton Mifflin had prepared advance reading copies of "The Wind Done Gone" for review, the estate tried to block publication, claiming copyright infringement. A trial court issued a preliminary injunction, finding merit in the estate's case. Houghton Mifflin then sought an emergency hearing from the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to set aside the injunction. A three-judge panel heard the appeal and ruled that the preliminary injunction be immediately vacated, based on 1st Amendment grounds and on an abuse of discretion by the trial judge. The panel indicated that it would render a full opinion in due course. That opinion has not yet been issued. Houghton Mifflin shipped finished books to bookstores on June 7. Since then, the estate has appealed. The court has not yet acted on that appeal, and the book continues to be sold.

"When I was 12," Randall said in an interview, "I read 'Gone With the Wind' and fell in love with the novel. This was a troubled love from the beginning. I had to overlook racist stereotyping and Klan whitewashing to appreciate the ambitious, resilient, hard-working, hard-loving character who is Scarlett. Like so many others, I managed to do it. Then one day, rereading the book, enormous questions arose for me: Where are the mulattoes on Tara? Where is Scarlett's half-sister? ... Unfortunately, 'GWTW' is an inaccurate portrait of Southern history. It's a South without miscegenation, without whippings, without families sold apart, without free blacks striving for their education ....'GWTW' depicts a South that never existed."

With the same attention to historical accuracy and psychological truth that possessed Mitchell, Randall has filled in these missing elements to fashion a novel that complements the story by telling it obliquely, from another perspective, that of Scarlett's half-sister, Cynara, who is "offstage" for the duration of Mitchell's original plot. "The Wind Done Gone" picks up the story a few days after Rhett Butler has walked out on Scarlett--but Cynara's memories go back to childhood, a territory unexplored by Mitchell. Some revelations will prove shocking to many fans of the original, but they ring true in the fictional scheme of things. Echoes of Mitchell's text reverberate in Randall's parody, from the heroine's dream wherein she must "jettison" everything ("Jettison" was an early would-be title for "Gone With the Wind") to her very name (Ernest Dowson's poem "Non Sum Qualis" contains the line, "I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind ....").

In many ways, Randall's work has the same relationship to "Gone With The Wind" that Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" has to "Hamlet": Here are the same characters, the same situations, cast in a new light in which motives and meanings are reversed like an elegantly lined overcoat worn inside out. It does not supplant or replace the original so much as show it off in a fresh and thought-provoking way.

And the writing is elegant. The novel opens: "Today is the anniversary of my birth. I have twenty-eight years. This diary and the quill pen I am writing with are the best gifts I got--except maybe my cake. R. gave me the diary, the pen, and the white frosted tiers. He also gave me emerald earbobs ....

"I was born May 25, 1845, at half past seven in the morning into slavery on a cotton farm a day's ride from Atlanta. My father, Planter, was the master of the place; my mother was the Mammy. My half-sister, Other, was the belle of five counties. She was not beautiful, but men seldom recognized this, caught up in the cloud of commotion and scent in which she moved ....

"They called me Cinnamon because I was skinny as a stick and brown. But my name is Cynara. Now when I tell it, I say that they called me Cinnamon because I was sweet and spicy .... Planter used to say I was his cinnamon and Mammy was his coffee."

In these opening paragraphs, Randall economically introduces the world of her novel and the characters that will dominate it. Other is, of course, Scarlett O'Hara; R. is Rhett Butler; and Planter is Scarlett's father, Cynara's father, the master of Tara. Later on, we meet Dreamy Gentleman (Ashley Wilkes) and Mealy Mouth (Melanie).

Halfway through the book, Garlic (Planter's old valet Pork, now Cotton Farm's caretaker) tells Cynara that Tara might be sold, that Scarlett is living there and that it would be best if she stayed away. Cynara writes in her diary: "My slave fear fall in beside me. That old fear that should be getting old, turning brown and be easy to blow into the wind, is ever green like the earth is ever red. Garlic's scared, I'm scared, that old fear that what we love might be sold: Mamas, Daddys, children ... the place ... a dress ... anything we love.

"It's an old confusion, people turning into things. When folks is gone (sold, dead, run-off), you got a corn-husk doll, a walnut shell ring, fingertips of dirt on the hem of a dress. It happened so much, maybe now things turn into people. The house, Tara--Garlic could hear it speak. All it contained of the brown lives it had eaten; it was a living thing."

The book's considerable strength derives from its treatment of power, love, identity and property. The owning of another person, body and soul--whether in a love relationship or the business of slavery--is shown to be a poisonous thing. Debts are accrued, payments must be made, accounts must be settled and equity established, exploited or exhausted. Parental love and romantic love are not spared. In "The Wind Done Gone," things become like people, and characters are symbolic of ownership in varying degrees.

The emerald earbobs, the book, the secret letters and Cotton Farm (Tara) all revolve around the story in an exchange of possessors, handlers, users and takers--those who tend, those who nurture, those who thieve. Even Butler becomes an object in the hidden struggle of Other and Cynara, for he loved Cinnamon "first" in this novel's scheme of things.

At one point, Cynara confesses to her diary: "There are so many things of Other's I have wanted. Things, then people. People more than things--but nothing she has ever had, no emerald, not R., have I ever wanted as much as I wanted her love for Mammy. As the sun sets, it don't hurt near as much that Mammy didn't love me as it hurts that I didn't love Mammy.

"Once upon a time I loved my mother. But that love was frail and untended; I let that love die. No, it wasn't like that, like a plant in a pot deprived of water. Truth is that love got some sort of sickness that moved so quick and there was no doctor to tend the patient and my love just died .... The first time you stop loving somebody, you learn all love ends. And loving somebody is just the graceful practice of patience before the love dies .... It hurts not to love her. And it hurt more when I didn't--I still don't--believe she ever loved me."

The issues of belonging, of self-worth and empowerment resonate when viewed by an outsider. And on this point, Cynara's story becomes especially poignant. Scarlett's birth mother was Lady, but her wet nurse was Mammy. In a sort of primal scene, Cynara remembers when she was a toddler herself, how the 3-year-old Scarlett unbuttoned her Mammy's blouse, announcing, "I want some titty-tip" and suckling there. And Cynara is fanning Lady, who is in the room along with Planter. And looks are exchanged among the adults. And later that day, when they are alone together, Lady offers her breast to Cynara, who nurses there and not for the last time. "Each time the milk came and how long it came without running out was a mystery to us both. Later, when I slept beside her, she said, 'You're my little girl, aren't you?"'

This is a version of the changeling myth in folklore and fairy tale. And it carries a turbulent subtext, the elements of which are as spooky and harrowing as the Grimmest of fairy tales. In "The Wind Done Gone," these proto-Gothic elements vividly emerge in the mystery of three young boys in the graveyard, the potion-like dosages of opium and liquor, the revelations of secret histories, the scenes of hushed-up injustices.

In folklore, the figure of the mother is sometimes a dangerous ogre, and the daughter is estranged from or in conflict with her powers. In this pairing, there is an expenditure of jealousy and resistance, an exhaustion of erotic impulses centered on the mother. Freud and Jung would have recognized these patterns.

In the case of Cynara, this resistance is complicated by the figure of her half-sister Scarlett. The love of Mammy for Scarlett is the crux of Cynara's pain; she even believes that Mammy allowed her to be sold off the plantation when she hit puberty. The death of Mammy proves a catalyst that allows Cynara to break free of the projections and resentments that she has harbored all her life toward Scarlett and Mammy. It is a tale of rebirth, of transcending the past to take up a new life.

Toward the end, Cynara has an epiphany of sorts: "My mother, her Mammy. I never had a name to call her that I was fond of. Can you give somebody a name after she's in the ground? Can you hear me, Mama? Do you know which one of you I am calling? Black mama, white mama. Narrow mama, wide mama. None of that is anything. Mama I knew and mama I didn't. I wonder if Mammy didn't see me as something of a Benedict Arnold, looking and telling all she see. Never learning the rule of silence. The rule of talk talk talk and don't tell nothing. Just the opposite of Lady, who spoke so little and said so much. Let me be greedy. I hope when I die I go to heaven. I know both my Mamas are praying for me. I expect, if I get to heaven, the first sound I'll hear is the sound of Mammy's crimson petticoat, the rustle of her heavenly garment moving toward me. We're going to a ball tonight. I'm going to wear rustling taffeta of my own."

This vision of both mothers conveys a benediction, the beginning of Cynara's transformation into her true self. "The Wind Done Gone," like the book that inspired it, wears "rustling taffeta" of its own.

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