Margaret Mitchell's 1936 epic Gone With the Wind is not your standard quiet piece of fiction. With over 25 million copies sold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is one of the five best-selling books of all time, with a blockbuster movie version that's No. 4 on the American Film Institute's Top 100 Greatest Movies list. Northerners may have trouble imagining why anyone would still give a damn about this long-winded tome, just a step above a Harlequin romance. But for Southerners, Mitchell's work is symbolic of a romanticized past that borders on the sacred. Alice Randall's radical retelling from the perspective of Tara's slaves, The Wind Done Gone, is sacrilegious to Scarlett enthusiasts.
A slender novel with a rather hokey cover, Randall's revolutionary version -- the "belle of five counties" is the "Other," the swashbuckling Rhett Butler is "R," and Ashley Wilkes "the Dreamy Gentleman," who has a homosexual affair with a slave -- has sparked its own civil war. (And Randall's not even a Yankee.) It was initially banned by an Atlanta federal judge, who called the novel "unabated piracy"; then the ruling was overturned in May by an appellate court after a highly public legal battle between Randall's publisher, Houghton Mifflin, and the estate of Margaret Mitchell. Thanks to the support of many well-known authors, including Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, and Pat Conroy, The Wind Done Gone hit bookstores last month.
A clash between copyright law and free speech, it all boils down to genre: Mitchell's people call Randall's version an unauthorized and illegal sequel. She claims it's a parody (which is protected under the law), written to "comment critically on a novel that has harmed generations of African Americans," according to the book's Web site (www.thewinddonegone.com). But the underlying controversy questions the right of artists to re-envision -- and in some cases tarnish the reputations of -- beloved cultural icons. Randall's heroine is Scarlett's half-sister Cynara -- a headstrong, literate mulatta, the illegitimate offspring of Mammy and Scarlett's daddy, Planter, the owner of the plantation. In Randall's alternate world, the slaves are not prattling Uncle Toms (as they are in the original), but calculating and clever, secretly manipulating their destinies behind the scenes.
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In an interview included in early proofs of the book, Randall (a Harvard graduate and a successful singer/songwriter) admits to having loved Mitchell's novel when she first read it as a teenager. But she became increasingly disturbed by its candy-coated portrayals of slavery and racist stereotypes. The descendant of a Confederate general herself, Randall wondered where the mulattos were on Tara. The question has never been addressed, thanks to the stringent controls of the Mitchell trust, which authorizes sequels as long as they exclude any references to miscegenation, homosexuality, and Scarlett's death -- all of which Randall takes on with gusto. Although the book is out, the battle isn't over, as Randall's recent reading at the Margaret Mitchell Museum (which drew protesters waving Confederate flags) proves. For now, Randall is having the last laugh: The Mitchell trust's embittered crusade should guarantee The Wind Done Gone commercial success.