Amid an unbelievable amount of legal wrangling and political posturing, there’s this little book called The Wind Done Gone.
You may have heard of it.
Depending on whom you ask, Nashville author Alice Randall’s novel a pseudo diary, really, of Scarlett O’Hara’s mulatto half-sister, Cynara is a parody of Gone With the Wind, a sacrilegious retelling of a literary classic or a revisionist history of a vastly overrated, racist melodrama.
Before it’s even available to be bought or borrowed, the book has sparked international media attention and ignited a firestorm of debate about whether it should be published at all. Now that an appeals court judge has cleared the way, Houghton Mifflin promises that books will be in stores by the end of this month.
Pretty much lost in all that rancor is the question of whether The Wind Done Gone is a good book. Does it stand on its own literary merit?
The easy answer is no. But nothing about this book has been easy.
Randall, a Harvard graduate and successful songwriter, says she wrote the book so black and white Americans could have a “healing belly laugh” and ostensibly move on with our collective and conflicted lives.
No doubt, snippets from Gone With the Wind the 1936 book and the 1939 movie version have become standard American trivia:
“Fiddle dee dee.”
“Tomorrow is another day.”
“You, sir, are no gentleman.”
“Land is the only thing that matters, Katie Scarlett. It’s the only thing that lasts.”
“Frankly, my dear . . .”
But understanding Randall’s book requires a lot more knowledge than those few catch phrases. Without a solid grounding in Margaret Mitchell’s characters and plot, Randall’s book would be nearly incomprehensible. Or at least meaningless.
There’s nothing subtle about Randall’s approach to this story. Scarlett is “Other,” the sainted Melanie is “Mealy Mouth,” and Belle the good-hearted madam is “Beauty.” Prissy is “Miss Priss,” and Pork is reincarnated as “Garlic,” the butler who is the brains behind the sacred plantation “Tata.”
Gerald O’Hara is “Planter,” and Mammy is still Mammy. (Picturing those two characters trysting may well be the most nimble leap of imagination required of readers.)
Cynara has a long and committed relationship with Rhett Butler, referred to simply as “R.” Turns out he never really loved Other. Through “R,” Cynara meets a charismatic black congressman and ultimately finds that elusive empowerment.
Had that “healing belly laugh” yet?
Randall’s book is clever in spots, surprising in others, but it’s hardly comic. The writing is occasionally lyrical: “Freedom had a flavor, and we were tasting it. I breathed in the pungent aroma of change.” Or this: “It was a rolling gutbucket cough of a laugh, like the clacking together of bones in a jar.”
But more often it’s something closer to oppressive: “Georgia is dirty laundry what needs washing.”
Turning the fabled plantation world on its head, the slaves in The Wind Done Gone are all wise and industrious, constantly saving the hapless white people from their own ineptitude. Anybody with brains, common sense or compassion ends up having at least “one drop of Negro blood.”
Merely witnessing Randall’s sheer desire to settle the score of every wrong ever inflicted upon every African-American becomes almost unbearable. And it just doesn’t make for good literature.
Randall has obvious talent and flair as a writer, but she never injects enough freshness into this very tried-and-untrue story. Some characters go too far over the top, while others are too recognizable as their 1936 incarnations. (That’s a literary judgment not a legal one.) And the diary format never really turns into a bona fide novel.
“She who ain’t free not to love, ain’t free to love,” Cynara realizes after Mammy dies, understanding finally that the old woman’s lifelong devotion to Other at the expense of her own child was simply part of being enslaved.
Just as Cynara struggles all her life to escape the reality and the legacy of slavery, Randall strives mightily to free her characters from Southern mythology.
However unfortunate it is, though, that Gone With the Wind has become history to so many people, Mitchell sure could tell a story. The jury’s still out on Randall.
And sadly, no matter what other accomplishments the 41-year-old author adds to an already impressive life list, she will forevermore be known as the one who tried to retell Gone With the Wind. And that massive, magnificently flawed piece of fiction looks none the worse for the challenge.
It will survive this torching. And probably many more.
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Teresa K. Weaver is Books Editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where this review originally appeared.