Saturday, April 5, 2014

Why The 'Gone With The Wind' Prequel Is A Bad Idea

by Melanie Linn Gutowski)

What happens when a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel goes the way of a tired summer blockbuster franchise? You get Ruth's Journey, the newest derivative work approved by the estate of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind. Donald McCaig, author of 2007's not-quite-well-received sequel, Rhett Butler's People, should have titled this one Gone With the Facts, since he seems to have dispensed with some crucial ones based on a New York Times interview published last week.

Ruth's Journey, to be released in October, is to chronicle the life of Mammy, the O'Hara family's faithful, if stereotypical, slave. McCaig has invented the name Ruth for her, as her first name was never revealed in the original novel.

I'll leave it to others to debate the wisdom of a septuagenarian white man "giving a voice" to a black woman slave. I'll even allow someone else to quibble over the choice of the first name "Ruth," as part of writing secondary works of beloved literature means inventing new material. But what McCaig and other such authors are less entitled to do is to disregard basic facts set forth in the original canon, whether that text was fair to the characters or not.

McCaig doesn't seem to have read the book carefully (and indeed, prior to writing Rhett Butler's People, he admitted he never had), because he states in his NYT interview, "Scarlett and Rhett are familiars, but when it comes to [Mammy], we don't know where she was born, if she was ever married, if she ever had children."

While those last two points may be fodder for McCaig's imagination, Mitchell states clearly in her novel that Mammy was "born in the Robillard great house," the home in Savannah owned by Scarlett's maternal grandparents, Solange and Pierre Robillard.

McCaig has also said that the story will begin "in 1804, when Ruth is brought from her birthplace, the French colony of Saint-Domingue that is now known as Haiti, to Savannah, Ga."

It's true that some of Scarlett's family members lived in Haiti, but they were the Prudhommes, Solange Robillard's parents. Therefore, in order for Mammy to have been born in the Robillard great house and reared in Ole Miss's (Solange Robillard's) bedroom as Mitchell writes, it would have had to have been after Solange's marriage. Mammy could not have been brought from Haiti. It's likely that the Robillard family owned Mammy's parents, or that Mammy's mother was owned by the Prudhomme family, and was given as a wedding present to Solange upon her marriage to Pierre Robillard.

The Guardian reports that not only has McCaig decided to change Solange's maiden name from Prudhomme to Fournier, but he's invented a new name for her husband. In the new book, he will be Henri instead of Pierre.

When one considers the timeline of Mitchell's book, McCaig's proposed birthdate, circa 1804, cannot be accurate. Mitchell writes that Mammy had been Ellen O'Hara's mammy, what we would call a nanny today. Ellen is 32 at the start of the Civil War, which puts her birth in 1829. She had two older sisters, which probably means Solange Robillard began having babies in the early 1820s. That would put Solange's marriage at circa 1819. So if Mammy had "been born in the Robillard great house, not in the quarters, and had been raised in Ole Miss' bedroom, sleeping on a pallet at the foot of the bed," as Mitchell writes, she could not have been born in 1804. Depending on details of ownership, Mammy was probably born either a few years prior to or several months after Solange's marriage into the Robillard family and then raised in her bedroom. Mammy was a nanny, not a nursemaid, so it would not have been necessary for her to have been of childbearing age prior to Ellen's birth, though she was old enough to diaper baby Ellen. This reasoning would put Mammy's birthdate closer to 1818.

Scarlett views Mammy as an old woman, from her 16-year-old, 1861 perspective. But it's important to note that she would not have been an old woman from our modern perspective. This was a society in which an unmarried woman of 25 was considered an old maid; Mammy would likely have been 43 years old at the start of the Civil War. The events of the book conclude around 1872, when she would have been about 54 and feeling her age after a lifetime of tending to the O'Haras.

Mammy's story is a worthy one to tell, but one wonders if McCaig respects the character enough to do her justice, given his clear lack of careful reading. It's true that Mitchell provides plenty of fodder for a prequel in her novel; and the original details are juicy ones: Scarlett's mother, Ellen O'Hara, settles for Gerald O'Hara after a thwarted romance with her cousin, Phillipe Robillard. Gerald O'Hara immigrates to escape murder charges in Ireland. Scarlett has ancestors who'd been involved in events as varied as Napoleon's exile, the Haitian Revolution of 1791, the Irish Volunteers and the Battle of the Boyne.

The true problem, of course, is the greed of the Mitchell estate. If the guardians of Margaret Mitchell's legacy were not intent on milking her characters for all they're worth, readers would not have to contend with mediocre "authorized" prequels or sequels every decade or so. The estate is notorious for constricting the authorial freedom of its contracted writers in terms of some concepts, such as miscegenation and homosexuality, when it should focus more on faithfulness to Mitchell's original narrative instead.

Peter Borland, editorial director for Atria Books, the imprint of Simon & Schuster that is publishing Ruth's Journey, told The New York Times, "What's really remarkable about what Donald has done is that it's a book that respects and honors its source material, but it also provides a necessary correction to what is one of the more troubling aspects of the book, which is how the black characters are portrayed."

If McCaig truly wants to "respect and honor" his source material, he should start by getting basic facts straight.

Melanie Linn Gutowski is a writer, researcher and historian from Pittsburgh, Pa