In a heartfelt introduction to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, author Pat Conroy mentions how his mother (a proud southerner) read this controversial novel to him when he was only five years old:
“For the most part, I was raised in a house without books, but the ones displayed and laid out flat for the inspection of visitors were the Bible and Gone With the Wind, in no particular order of importance.
[My mother] read the novel aloud to me when I was five years old, and it is from this introductory reading that I absorbed my first lessons in the authority of fiction.”
That happened between six and seven decades ago, a time when regional differences tied to the Civil War were more apparent than I believe they are today. It was also before the Civil Rights Movement and other events put a different perspective on the inequality at the heart of the novel.
I wonder how many parents would read Gone With the Wind to their five-year-old now. Would a five-year-old even understand it?
If they’re lucky, they wouldn’t.
As I wrote last week in Should We Change How We Talk & Write About the Civil War?,
“Full of racial slurs and stereotypes, the novel perpetuates myths about the South. In Margaret Mitchell’s fictional version of her homeland, the planters were charming aristocrats, the slaves were stupid and submissive laborers, and the ruthless “Yankee invaders” ruined everything[.]
Gone with the Wind espouses romantic notions of the Old South that hide the brutal truth about slavery and those who wanted to maintain it.”
I would never tell another parent how to raise their child — and I expect the same courtesy — but I will say that, when it comes to my children, Gone With the Wind won’t be on the TBR list anytime soon.
While the plot (which includes violence and sexual coercion) and overarching racist and sexist themes are too complicated for a small child to understand, the racist language is pretty easy to pick up. I would never want my children to use these words without knowing their meaning or impact, inadvertently causing harm to others who do.* The younger the child, the bigger the risk.
That said, I highly recommend the book for adults who are old enough to understand the context in which it was written. It’s a novel that certainly deserves its place as a classic for its compelling characters and engrossing portrayal of an Old South than only ever existed in fiction.
So, how about you? Did your parents read anything to you that, in retrospect, might not have been the best idea?
In my case, nothing comes to mind. There are certainly books I read before I was ready to understand them — I didn’t appreciate Pride & Prejudice when I was in elementary school — but none of the books I read at a very young age (or were read to me) were quite like Gone With the Wind.
**Image at the top: That’s actually a picture of one of my 7-year-olds reading A Wrinkle in Time (not Gone with the Wind!).