Friday, February 13, 2004

Grandma Fontaine

The other day I picked up a copy of Gone with the Wind and was once again reminded why it remains my favorite book of all time, one that I'm drawn to read again and again. Margaret Mitchell’s classic endures for many reasons, but one of the most compelling is Mitchell’s ability to make even the most minor character fully realized, characters that ring so true that they have become Southern archetypes. My favorite example of this is the O’Hara’s neighbor, the fierce dowager Grandma Fontaine, who makes only two brief appearances in the 1000 plus page book.

After she shoots the Yankee deserter, Scarlett takes possession of his horse and in a few days rides over to the neighboring Fontaines’ for the first time since the war began. After Scarlett tells them all that the Yankees burned most of the cotton crop, Grandma Fontaine responds.

"Be thankful it wasn't your house," said Grandma, leaning her chin on her cane. "you can always grow more cotton and you can't grow a house. By the bye, had you all started picking your cotton?"

"No," said Scarlett, "and now most of it is ruined. I don't imagine there's more than three bales left standing, in the far field in the creek bottom, and what earthly good will it do? All our field hands are gone and there's nobody to pick it."

"Mercy me, all our field hands are gone and there's nobody to pick it!" mimicked Grandma and bent a satiric glance on Scarlett. "What's wrong with your own pretty paws, Miss, and those of your sisters?"

"Me? Pick cotton?" cried Scarlett aghast, as if Grandma had been suggesting some repulsive crime. "Like a field hand? Like white trash? Like the Slattery women?"

"White trash indeed! Well, isn't this generation soft and ladylike! Let me tell you, Miss, when I was a girl my father lost all his money and I wasn't above doing honest work with my hands and in the fields too, till Pa got enough money to buy some more darkies. I've hoed my row and I've picked my cotton and I can do it again if I have to. And it looks like I'll have to. White trash, indeed!"'

Grandma Fontaine shrewdly preceives that Scarlett has more to unburden, and takes her aside so Scarlett can tell her the real truth of all the horrors and deprivation that she has had to endure since she last saw the Fontaines’: her mother’s death, her father’s descent into madness, the horror of Melanie’s labor, their harrowing escape from Atlanta, how the entire household is on the brink of starvation. After she listens she tells Scarlett a story I have never forgotten, a story that we can all draw strength and courage from.

"Child, it's a very bad thing for a woman to face the worst that can happen to her, because after she's faced the worst she can't ever really fear anything again. And it's very bad for a woman not to be afraid of anything. You think I don't understand what you've told me--what you've been through? Well, I understand very well. When I was about your age I was in the Creek uprising, right after the Fort Mims massacre--yes," she said in a far away voice, "just about your age for that was fifty-odd years ago. And I managed to get into the bushes and hide and I lay there and saw our house burn and I saw the Indians scalp my brothers and sisters. And I could only lie there and pray that the light of the flames wouldn't show up my hiding place. And they dragged Mother out and killed her about twenty feet from where I was lying. And scalped her too. And ever so often one Indian would go back to her and sink his tommyhawk into her skull again. I--I was my mother's pet and I lay there and saw it all. And in the morning I set out for the nearest settlement and it was thirty miles away. It took me three days to get there, through the swamps and the Indians, and afterward they thought I'd lose my mind... That's where I met Dr. Fonatine. He looked after me... Ah, well, that's been fifty years ago, as I said, and since that time I've never been afraid of anything or anybody because I'd known the worst that could happen to me. And that lack of fear has gotten me into a lot of trouble and cost me a lot of happiness. God intended women to be timid frightened creatures and there's something unnatural about a woman who isn't afraid... Scarlett, always save something to fear--even as you save something to love..."

Mitchell has been accused of romanticizing master/slave relations and slave conditions. She was most harshly criticized for never mentioning miscegenation, but those detractors obviously overlooked Grandma Fontaine’s comments about all of her family's black female slaves running off with Yankee soldiers.

"They promised all the black wenches silk dresses and gold earbobs. . . . some of the troopers went off with the black fools behind them on their saddles. Well, all they'll get will be yellow babies and I can't say that Yankee blood will improve the stock."

"Oh, Mama Fontaine!"

"Don't pull such a shocked face, Jane. We're all married, aren't we? And, God knows, we've seen mulatto babies before this."

Part of my library job description is reader’s advisory so I highly recommend this book to you, one of the great masterpiece’s of Southern literature.

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