Friday, June 19, 2015


Eds. note: Updated on June 28 2015 with a list of other children's and young adult books that include a reference to Gone With the Wind. 

Back in April of 2015, I learned about Martina Boone's Compulsion: Heirs of Watson Island. Published in 2014 by Simon Pulse (which is part of Simon and Schuster), the protagonist is a teenage girl named Barrie who moves to a plantation in South Carolina to live with her aunt Pru. The setting is present day.

The island where the plantation is located is haunted, and the house is falling apart. Later, we'll read about malicious Cherokee spirits called "yunwi" who are doing things (loosening screws and the like) to the house at night so that the next day, things come apart when touched. Outside in the garden, however, they are helpful. If Pru leaves food out for them, they will tend the garden.

This is my first post about the book. I've not finished reading it yet. My decision to post right now, before I finish it, is deliberate.

The book is set in Charleston. I started reading it Wednesday afternoon. That night, nine African Americans were murdered in Charleston. When I woke up on Thursday, my social media feeds were about the murder of nine people who were killed in a historically black church of deep significance, by a white person who said [Y]ou've raped our women... 

I read the news stories and then, returned to Compulsion. I came to a part that brought me up cold. On page 150, Cassie (one of the main characters), tells Barrie: theater group and I do Gone With the Wind at night, in front of the ruins.
I read that line and paused. I imagine a lot of readers will pause, too, but that a lot more won't. Most will just keep on reading. Far too many people don't see the novel or movie as racist. (The "ruins" are what is left of Cassie's family plantation.)

After I ruminated on that for a while, I read on. I wondered if Boone (the author) would, in some way (through a character or through the narration), critique Cassie or her group for doing that play.

I didn't find anything more about it until I got to page 237. Barrie and Eight (her love interest) are at the play. The play opens with Cassie and two boys coming onto the stage. They're wearing "aristocratic costumes" and are followed by
...a girl dressed as a slave, who balanced glasses and a pitcher of lemonade on a tray.
Barrie and Eight are engrossed by the production (p. 238):
Neither of them moved again until the audience gasped when Rhett Butler came on stage, played by a light-skinned African-American boy.
"Oh, that's brilliant," Barrie whispered. Everyone around her whispered too, but then the magic of the play took hold again.
When the play is over, Eight wonders "if that was nerve or genius." Barrie replies that it is both. End of discussion. I assume they're talking about casting an African American as Rhett. And, I assume that the girl playing "the slave girl" is white.

I have a lot of questions at this point.

Why were they doing that play in the first place? Since the author includes it without comment, is she among the millions who don't see it as problematic? Or, who have nostalgic attachments to it, such that they can't set it aside?

Why "a light-skinned" boy? Why not just say "African American boy"? Was it necessary that he be light skinned? What does it mean to have an African American boy in this racist play? It reminds me of Ann Rinaldi's My Heart Is On the Ground, in which a Native girl happily plays a Pilgrim in a Thanksgiving play.

I assume that we (readers) are supposed to think that Cassie is enlightened for casting a light skinned African American as Rhett. We're supposed to think that there is racial progress in Boone's Charleston. I don't see racial progress at all, but I wonder if Boone imagined me, or any person who casts a critical eye on Gone With the Wind as a reader of her book? As presented, it reminds me of The Help where good white people help black people.

In interviews of her, I've read that Boone's characters are going to change over the three books. Maybe Boone is going to have Barrie and Cassie step away from Gone With the Wind. Maybe they're going to say "it was dumb for us to do that" or something like that. That is what characters do, right? They change over the course of a story.

I want to poke at that idea a bit.

Let's assume that by the end of the trilogy, Barrie or Cassie (or both of them) reject Gone With the Wind. Readers will move with them to that point. It'll be a win for social justice. But who is it a win for?

Some readers will applaud when Barrie or Cassie see the light. But what about black teens who already see that light? They are asked to be patient until Barrie and Cassie see that light. They, who are the target of racist acts today, have to be patient.

I find it deeply disturbing. The instant that the play is mentioned, somebody in the book has to say WTF so that immediately, readers will think differently.

Am I making sense? Do you get what I'm saying? Help me say it better so that writers won't do what Boone has done.

There's so much more to say.

The white man who murdered nine African Americans in Charleston said "you rape our women." Did you know that there are heated discussions within some circles about whether or not Rhett raped Scarlett? In Boone's book, Rhett is African American. My guess? Boone and her editor had no idea that some would read Rhett-as-African-American as a negative rather than the plus they intended it to be.

Once I hit upload on this post, I'll return to Compulsion. I have a lot of notes about the Cherokee witch and the voodoo priest. As a Native reader, I gather I'm supposed to be patient, too, as a white writer speaks to white readers about racism, in the past, and in the present, too.

Update, Sunday June 21, 2015

I finished reading Compulsion. My review, focusing on Native content, is at Martina Boone's Compulsion

Update, Sunday, June 28, 2015

Do you remember coming across Gone With The Wind in these books?

Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. In Chapter 15, Opal is at the library to get a book she can read aloud to Gloria Dump. The librarian, Miss Franny, suggests Gone With The Wind, which she says is a "wonderful story about the Civil War." Opal says that war was about slavery, and Miss Franny says "Slavery, yes," and "It was also about states' rights and money" (p. 101). Gloria Dump is African American and tells Opal she's heard of the book. Opal reads it aloud whenever she's visiting Gloria. On page 135 Opal asks Gloria if she wants her to read some more. Gloria says "Yes, indeed." and "I've been looking forward to it all day. Let's see what Miss Scarlett is up to now."

Just as Long as We're Together by Judy Blume. On page 220, Rachel tells Stephanie "If you feel like reading, there's a really good book on my desk. It's called Gone with the Wind.

More Best of Mad Libs by Roger Price and Leonard Stern. On a page about Romantic Movie Blockbusters, is this: "Gone With the Wind, set during the ___ War, is the story of Scarlett O'Hara, a young, ___-willed woman. She uses her feminine ___ to win back her ___, but in the process loses Rhett Butler, the only ___ she ever loved."

Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Secret Pitch, by Donald J. Sobol. On page 49, Sally talks about Percy, who is a gentleman, and is taking her to see Gone With the Wind. First published in 1965, by Nelson, the 2002 edition is from Dell Yearling, and the 2007 edition is from Puffin.

Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets by Dav Pilkey. In chapter 20, George (the African American character), says "In the past, literally dozens of epic novels have been written that have changed the course of history: Moby Dick, Gone with the Wind, and of course, Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets!"  (Eds note, 6/30/15: I inserted a screen capture of the page with Gone With the Wind.)

Anastasia at Your Service by Lois Lowry. On page 29, Anastasia is thinking of what she'll talk about the next day, working as a companion to an elderly woman. The text reads (p. 29): "Tonight she would have to think seriously about Conversation Topics. Not politics or religion, she knew. Literature, probably. Tonight she would review in her mind all the books she had ever read. Gone With the Wind was one of her favorites. She could talk to people at the luncheon about Gone With the Wind. Why Scarlett didn't marry Ashley Wilkes. Stuff like that."

Do you know of others?

Update, June 30, 2:00 PM
In the comments below, Deborah Menkart pointed to I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosin. On page 193, 11 year old Celeste is with her aunt. They watch Gone with the Wind: 'Mesmerized, we curl up on the couch and watch all three hours of Gone with the Wind while our mouths turn blueberry-blue. Then I crawl up the stairs to my room and hope that I have a dream about Rhett Butler as I remind myself that, like Miss Scarlett said, "Tomorrow is another day."' 

Update, June 30, 2:07 PM
On Twitter, MelissaA1763 wrote "The Outsiders. Can't remember the specifics, but Ponyboy and Johnny read it while they're in hiding, and Johnny really likes it."

Update, July 1, 9:43 AM
On Facebook, Benji pointed me to Lowry's Number the Stars. I looked it up. It is on page 27: "Mama had told Annemarie and Ellen the entire story of Gone With the Wind, and the girls thought it much more interesting and romantic than the kind-and-queen tales that Kirsti loved." Annemarie and Ellen are playing with paper dolls. Annemarie is being Scarlett. Ellen is being Melanie. They play at getting ready to go to a ball.


Anonymous said...

So we're not supposed to read or watch or admit to enjoying books/movies from the past that would now be deemed "inappropriate"? Should we just get rid of all those books that now offend people?

Anonymous said...

I'm happy you're reading this book Debbie as I was eager to hear your thoughts and will be watching for your later posts.

I think you bring up a great point here. A lot of "classic" titles are deeply problematic and even if they are still read/loved/discussed it's important to also remember the complicated history behind such titles and couch discussion of them in appropriate terms. I thought the subversive treatment of Gone with the Wind here was positive and didn't think long enough about it to pick up the potential negative connotations--now I do wish there had been a more extended discussion or a different play was chosen altogether.

As we discussed on Twitter the idea of whether to be patient and wait for the payoff (enlightenment) with characters in the final book of a series is also something worth considering. I always prefer books in a series to function as individual books first and pieces of a whole second. Something that feels doubly true for situations involving character development and growth.

Anonymous said...

Debbie, thank you so much for this post. It really captures the experience of having to wonder whether the author is going to be responsible or not. I find the idea of a reader -- particularly a child -- having to wait to see herself humanized an inherently problematic one. Yes, it might accurately reflect the inner journey many white people take, but isn't the point that our dehumanizing views were always wrong? And therefore, why go back and re-live them? Such ruminations could definitely be appropriate in an all-white anti-racist group, in which the point is for white people to educate each other, but any child can pick up a book, and be hurt--or validated--by what's inside. Asking marginalized readers to "wait" to be validated is an example of white dominance as perpetuated by well-intentioned white folks.

Deborah Menkart said...

I was similarly shocked when I read "I Lived on Butterfly Hill" by Marjorie Agosín which won the Pura Belpré Award. The book is beautifully written and exposes the horrors of the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile through the eyes of a young girl. (Although nothing is said about the U.S. role -- a major, problematic omission.) For safety, the protagonist comes to the U.S. after her parents are disappeared in Chile. What does she watch with her aunt? Gone With The Wind. And, with NO critique. Of all the films the author could have selected -- why that one? This is the reason we have not added "I Lived on Butterfly Hill" to any of our recommended lists, despite its many good qualities and important topic. What most shocked me is that I had heard the book recommended for months before I read it and not one reference or critique of the inclusion of GWTW. That is actually the most troubling part.

Ann Bennett said...

One irony about Margaret Mitchell's novel, "Gone With the Wind" is that one of the goals of the novel is to dispel the romanticism about the antebellum South.

Unfortunately, Hollywood undid her work. As the writer Catherine Hyde said, She hopes many writers get the misfortune of Hollywood making a movie of their book. The writer gets the boost, but the story is invariably warped.

You need to be cautious assigning the evil of this young man to any group of people. There is a certain percentage of saints, evil doers and most people in a continuum in between.

Sam Jonson said...

Speaking of which...I think these kinds of books are called "'acceptance' narratives". The problem with these books is not that they have main characters who start out bigots, but that they never ever show any of the oppressed characters' opinions (especially about all this bigotry!). They also have a tendency to make some people more bigoted. See this post at YA Pride.

And something else...the earliest example (that I know of) of a book with such a narrative is The Courage of Sarah Noble, published in 1954. See this review and this story for why it's so damaging.

Sam Jonson said...

And furthermore...this whole "acceptance" narrative is also used in (yikes!) The Cay by Theodore Taylor (1969), The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox (1973), The Trouble with Donovan Croft by Bernard Ashley (1974), My Mate Shofiq by Jan Needle (1978), and even The Black Witch by Laurie Forest (2017!).
I wonder if there be any twists on this narrative, where the protagonist is not only a Villain Protagonist, but also a Politically Incorrect Villain, and preferably a sadist to boot, so that everyone will know they're evil.
I've also noticed that the "acceptance" narrative can sometimes seem like a metaphor of white fragility--well, to me, at least. You see, that narrative has non-white readers endure a lot of white folks' racist Wangst for a loooong while. And as James Joyce wrote, white fragility is the average white man doing this:
"...moaning feebly, in monkmarian monotheme, but tarned long and then a nation louder, while engaged in swallowing from a large ampullar, that his pawdry's purgatory was more than a n***er bloke could bear, hemiparalysed by the tong warfare and all the shemozzle, (Daily Maily, fullup Lace! Holy Maly, Mothelup Joss!) his cheeks and trousers changing colour every time a gat croaked. How is that for low, laities and gentlenuns? Why, dog of the Crostiguns, whole continents rang with this Kairokorran lowness!...But would anyone, short of a madhouse, believe it? Neither of those clean little cherubum, Nero or Nobookisonester [Nebuchadnezzar] himself, ever nursed such a spoiled opinion of his monstrous marvellosity as did this mental and moral defective (here perhaps at the vanessance of his lownest)".
Joyce couldn't have written it better. So, writers, never cry or whine that you have it worse than any non-white readers who are going to suffer through your work, even if you feel unfairly treated.