She was reading Gone with the Wind for the first time. It was spring and the pale yellow bedroom was in the deep south of Alabama. Her mind, however, was roughly 200 miles north, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Now, you have to keep in mind that this was 1985 and she was 14. Whatever racist reputation the book has to the broader world outside the South was totally lost on her – as it mostly is even to this day. She had read Twain with the same obliviousness: that of a white southern teenager who understood the South from that perspective alone. She was neither privileged nor disadvantaged, walking that treacherous line between the two. She was also only slightly aware of the events that had played themselves out a mere twenty years before in Selma and Birmingham… and Montgomery. The only thing she cared about that had to do with Montgomery was that she would get to go ice skating on the next trip they took there – Daddy had promised she could.
For her Gone with the Wind was all about the story she’d been drawn into.
The beauty and romanticism of it thrilled her. The story pulled her through it.
She could feel the breeze and smell the barbeque at Twelve Oaks.
She was wrapped up in characters who fascinated her as much as the language Mitchell had masterfully crafted into beautiful images in her mind.
There were azaleas and dogwoods in bloom outside her very window. Her father had taken to digging dogwood sapplings up when he got the chance and bringing them home to plant in the yard for her mother to enjoy the first few splendid weeks of Spring. Daddy’s own unique way of bringing her mother flowers, she supposed.
But, for the girl, the dogwoods she could see with her own eyes paled in comparison with the lovely north Georgia woods Mitchell described so skillfully.
She learned to flirt from Scarlett. And, she had to admit, she’d learned a few other things from her as well.
Melanie taught her about turning the other cheek. Although Melanie generally annoyed her and made her feel guilty for liking Scarlett as much as she did.
It could be argued that she had, sometimes cautiously and other times recklessly, pulled from the good and the bad of these two fictional characters and implemented their tactics her own life. Subconsciously – most of the time.
She desperately wished now that there were more of Atticus Finch in her than Scarlett. But Harper Lee’s hero was an embodiment of virtue that even Gone with the Wind could not handle. And, besides, it would be several years until To Kill A Mockingbird would make it to her bedside table. When it did, however, it would never really leave again. She would re-read it periodically for the rest of her life.
This weekend, however – and more than a few years past 1985 – that same girl looked out the picture window in her living room at the dogwoods she could see with her own eyes.
And for the very first time it dawned on her. She had done it unconsciously, but she had done it .
Reluctantly, the knowledge of the dark side of her beloved South raised itself in her mind. She acknowledged the unflattering and embarrassing truth about that South of 150 years ago. It was not something you could ignore.
Right now the azaleas and dogwoods outside her window were too beautiful to ignore.
Margaret Mitchell had been right about the beauty of the north Georgia woods.
She knew it for a fact. Because she now lived in them herself.