Mammy Revealed, in Prequel

The New York TimesMarch 26, 2014 

Hattie McDaniel (Mammy) and Vivien Leigh (Scarlet O'Hara) from Gone with the Wind

Mammy, the faithful slave in “Gone With the Wind,” may finally get her due – and a proper name.

More than 75 years after the publication of the epic novel by Margaret Mitchell, a prequel with Mammy at its center is set for release in October, the publisher said Wednesday.

The completed book, “Ruth’s Journey,” is the fictional telling of the life of one of the novel’s central characters, a house servant called Mammy who otherwise remains nameless. The story begins in 1804, when Ruth is brought from her birthplace, the French colony of Saint-Domingue that is now known as Haiti, to Savannah. The Mitchell estate has authorized the prequel, which was written by Donald McCaig, the author of one of two authorized “Gone With the Wind” sequels, “Rhett Butler’s People,” from 2007. (The other was “Scarlett” by Alexandra Ripley, released in 1991.) “Gone With the Wind” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1937 and has sold hundreds of millions of copies.

Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, acquired the rights to the new book.

The Mitchell estate also blessed the choice of McCaig, who is perhaps best known for “Jacob’s Ladder,” his award-winning Civil War novel published in 1998.

McCaig suggested a prequel that focused on the character he called Ruth, one of the most beloved figures in “Gone With the Wind”: sharp-tongued, loving, sensitive and deeply moral.

“It was Donald’s idea, instead of doing another sequel, to go backwards,” said Peter Borland, the editorial director of Atria. “He felt that Mammy was such a fascinating and crucial character to the book. He wanted to flesh out a story of her own.”

Mitchell was criticized for the one-dimensional nature of many African-American characters in the book, particularly Mammy, who cared for fiery Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara. An unauthorized parody of the classic novel, “The Wind Done Gone,” published in 2001 over the objections of the Mitchell estate, was told from the perspective of a slave whose mother was Mammy.

Borland said the new book addresses those criticisms head-on.

“What’s really remarkable about what Donald has done is that it’s a book that respects and honors 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,” Borland said.

In an email, McCaig, 73, who lives on a farm in Virginia, said that he was drawn to write about Ruth because there are “three major characters in ‘Gone With the Wind,’ but we only think about two of them.”

“Scarlett and Rhett are familiars, 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,” he said.

“Ruth’s Journey” also fleshes out the story of one of the more compelling figures in “Gone With the Wind,” Ellen Robillard O’Hara, the matriarch of the clan, who dies at the Tara plantation during the Civil War.

Among the other new plot twists McCaig dreamed up: Ruth has an early marriage that was not broached in “Gone With the Wind,” and she has a connection to Rhett Butler’s family that explains her hostile behavior toward Rhett later in the classic novel.

The first two-thirds of the 416-page “Ruth’s Journey” are in the third person, and the last portion is told in Ruth’s own dialect.

Booksellers said the book’s selling power was far from certain.

Sarah Brown, a buyer with Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., said that “Rhett Butler’s People” was not a strong seller but that “maybe people who love ‘Gone With the Wind’ will want to get more of it.”

She added, “I think it will get a lot of press, but I don’t think it will be a huge blockbuster.”

The book could, however, fit in with popular historical novels told by women, like “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain or “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” by Therese Anne Fowler, she said. Atria acquired the rights in 2010, after reading about 25 pages and labored to keep it secret while McCaig worked.

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