Books

'Gone With the Wind' prequel to tell Mammy's story

Alison Flood

Author Donald McCaig's upcoming novel - billed as a prequel to "Gone With the Wind" - is set to tell the untold story of devoted house slave Mammy.

Actress Hattie McDaniel (center, bottom) sits at the very back of the room, away from her fellow 'Gone with the Wind' stars, at the 1940 Academy Awards awards dinner in Los Angeles. (Reuters)

Mammy, the slave devoted to her mistress Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, is to be given her own back story by the author Donald McCaig, in what its publisher said was "a necessary correction" to how the black characters in Margaret Mitchell's bestselling novel are portrayed.

Authorised by the Mitchell Estate, the novel is billed as a prequel to Gone With the Wind, and will see McCaig give Mammy both a name – Ruth – and a past. It will be published by Atria in the US in October and will, said the publisher, be "a remarkable story of fortitude, heartbreak, and indomitable will [in which McCaig] reveals a portrait of Mammy that is both nuanced and poignant, at once a proud woman and a captive, and a strict disciplinarian who has never experienced freedom herself".

In Mitchell's novel, the character of Mammy – which won actor Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in the film version of the book – is not fleshed out. Portrayed as a loyal and loving part of the O'Hara household, she keeps Scarlett in line in Mitchell's painstakingly spelled out vernacular. "Ah ain' gwine stand by an' have eve'ybody at de pahty sayin' how you ain' fotched up right. Ah has tole you an' tole you da you kin allus tell a lady by dat she eat lak a bird. An' Ah ain' aimin' ter have you go ter Mist' Wilkes' an'eat lak a fe'el han' an' gobble lak a hawg."

Peter Borland, editorial director of Atria, told the New York Times that McCaig "felt that Mammy was such a fascinating and crucial character to the book" that "he wanted to flesh out a story of her own", adding: "What's really remarkable about what Donald has done is that it's a book that respects and honours 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."

A previous novel, The Wind Done Gone, invented a new character – Scarlett's half-sister and Mammy's daughter. "I was born May 25 1945, 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," wrote author Alice Randall in the novel, which was not authorised by Mitchell's estate.

'A rock in the river of time'
McCaig, a civil war novelist who also expanded the story of Mitchell's character Rhett Butler in his novel Rhett Butler's People
, will open his tale on the Caribbean island of Saint Domingue – Haiti today. "Her story began with a miracle," he writes, telling of how an infant girl survived an attack to fall into the hands of the French émigrés, Henri and Solange Fournier, who take her to Savannah.

"What follows is the sweeping tale of Ruth's life as shaped by her strong-willed mistress and other larger-than-life personalities she encounters in the South: Jehu Glen, a free black man with whom Ruth falls madly in love; the shabbily genteel family that first hires Ruth as Mammy; Solange's daughter Ellen and the rough Irishman, Gerald O'Hara, whom Ellen chooses to marry; the Butler family of Charleston and their shocking connection to Mammy Ruth; and finally Scarlett O'Hara – the irrepressible Southern belle Mammy raises from birth," said Atria. "Despite the cruelties of a world that has decreed her a slave, Mammy endures, a rock in the river of time. She loves with a ferocity that would astonish those around her if they knew it. And she holds tight even to those who have been lost in the ravages of her days."

McCaig told the New York Times that he wanted to tell the story of Ruth because there are "three major characters in Gone With the Wind, but we only think about two of them."

"Scarlett and Rhett are familiar, but when it comes to the third, we don't know where she was born, if she was ever married, if she ever had children," he said. "Indeed, we don't even know her name." The New York Times revealed that the first two-thirds of the book would be told in the third person, with the last third in Ruth's own dialect.

White man telling Mammy's story
Although McCaig drew praise for Rhett Butler's People – the Guardian said he wrote about the civil war "with great empathy and historical authority", adding that "you suspect McCaig isn't terribly interested in the story of Rhett and Scarlett at all" – the news that a white man would be telling Mammy's story drew immediate criticism.

"A 73-year-old white writer is automatically deemed capable of rendering a believable story, an epic book nonetheless, about an enslaved black woman," responded Ronda Racha Penrice at the Grio.

She continued: "in the end, the problem isn't whether the compelling stories of the men, women and children who endured the inhumane horror of being deemed the property of other human beings in the eyes of the law and other people's twisted sense of morality deserve to be told. Instead, the real problem is that white people are still viewed as the utmost authority on everything their imaginations can cook up." – © Guardian News and Media 2014 

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