For millions of “Gone With the Wind” fans, Mammy will always be Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel, tsk-tsking her spoiled charge, Miss Scarlett, and harrumphing because Mammy has more common sense than just about anybody in the Deep South.
But who was she, really? Now, 78 years after the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s novel and on the 75th anniversary of the movie, we’re about to find out.
As beloved as Mammy is, Mitchell’s portrayal of her and other slaves has been a lightning rod for critics for decades.
In “Ruth’s Journey” by Donald McCaig, Mammy finally gets a name and a back story. The novel begins with Ruth as a small child in Saint-Domingue (later Haiti), where she saves herself after her family is slaughtered during the slave rebellion.
“Mammy is one of the truly powerful figures in the book and movie and, oddly enough, one of the figures nobody tends to think much about,” McCaig says.
“Ruth’s Journey” is the third sequel (or, in this case, prequel) to be authorized by the Margaret Mitchell estate. The sequel saga has had as many chapters as “GWTW” and has sometimes been as fraught with drama. Mitchell, who died in 1949, said she would never write about Tara again.
The first sequel, 1991’s “Scarlett” by romance novelist Alexandra Ripley, sold well but was panned by critics. The estate next turned to best-selling Southern novelist Pat Conroy (“The Prince of Tides”).
But Conroy, who wanted to write a novel about Rhett Butler, decided in 1999 he frankly didn’t give a damn anymore after a dispute over legal fees and wrangling over what he could write. (The estate apparently wasn’t thrilled when he threatened to kill off Scarlett.) The Mitchell heirs also famously lost a battle to prevent the publication of African-American novelist Alice Randall’s 2001 satire, “The Wind Done Gone.”
The civil war between the estate and Mitchell’s would-be successors ended with the emergence of McCaig, a 74-year-old Virginian and author of the respected Civil War novel “Jacob’s Ladder.” He was tapped to complete the job Conroy abandoned; McCaig’s “Rhett Butler’s People” was published in 2007 and became a best seller.
“It’s a new day, and there have been no restrictions on Donald,” says Paul Anderson Jr., an Atlanta attorney and consultant to the Mitchell estate. “He’s a fine writer and we have confidence in him.”
It was McCaig who went to the estate with the idea to tell Mammy’s story, which he says was inspired by the Biblical story of Ruth. The estate signed on, and Atria acquired the rights.
McCaig, who lives on a farm outside Williamsville, Va., says he was “determined to respect the original book.” He began with what we know of Mammy from “GWTW” — that she grew up in the home of Scarlett’s maternal grandmother. He ends with Mammy trying to wrestle a headstrong Scarlett at the Twelve Oaks barbecue as she pursues Ashley Wilkes. In between is a lot of novelistic invention.
“I was interested in how an African-American slave could play such a tremendously important part in a well-to-do white family. I wondered where she came from, had she ever been in love, had she had a child,” McCaig says. His Mammy suffers much loss but is saved because she has other children to love — the children of white women.
The first two-thirds of the novel is written in the third person. Then, we suddenly hear from Mammy, who takes over the narrative in a voice that’s different from the stereotypical dialect Mitchell used in “GWTW.”
“That dialect was used to denigrate black people,” McCaig says. He does use the N-word in the book, defending it as necessary in a novel about the period.
As for writing in Mammy’s voice, McCaig says it “was tremendously risky. But I think it’s the best part of the book.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a “GWTW” sequel without a controversy. When “Ruth’s Journey” was announced, there was an outcry among some black writers.
“Don’t you just love how, in the 21st century, a 73-year-old (now 74) white man can say ‘I want to give Mammy a voice’ and the powers that be all think it’s a great idea?” Ronda Racha Penrice wrote on thegrio.com, a website for African-American news.
“It’s called human imagination,” McCaig says. “That’s what we writers do.” Penrice, author of “African American History for Dummies,” said she is happy to “see what he comes up with,” but worries about black stories told by white writers.
Not everyone is a fan of rewriting classics, though it’s become a modern-day cottage industry.
“I have mixed emotions; I am a ‘Gone With the Wind’ purist,” says Carol Fitzgerald, president of The Book Report Network of websites. “But we live in a world where success begets spinoffs and where people crave ‘more’ about their favorite fictional characters. … Now, will readers connect Mammy with Ruth? Rhett and Scarlett are iconic names, as is Mammy, but the leap from Mammy to Ruth is a hurdle.”
Jocelyn McClurg is a staff writer for USA Today.