Nearly eight decades after she became one of the most famous supporting figures in American popular literature, Mammy has become the heroine of her own story in a prequel to “Gone with the Wind, Fabienne Faurl reports for Agence France Presse.
“Ruth’s Journey” by novelist and poet Donald McCaig comes 75 years after the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer-winning epic work of fiction set in the Deep South during the US Civil War.
“It’s an investigation and re-creation of the life of a major character in ‘Gone with the Wind’ whose contribution perhaps has not been fully appreciated yet,” McCaig, 74, told AFP.
In both the original book and the movie, he said, Mammy’s real name was not even clear, as was usual for an African-American slave character tasked with raising her children of the family that owned her.
The perspective triggered charges of racism leveled at Mitchell, but McCaig — author of another “Gone with the Wind” prequel — said the flaw must been understood in context.
“It was probably impossible for a white writer at the time when Mitchell wrote (in the 1930s, when segregation still prevailed in much of America) to really consider the African-American half of the equation,” he said.
In imagining Mammy’s back story, McCaig — whose book has been authorized by Mitchell’s estate — baptized her Ruth, in reference to the biblical character that symbolizes faith and fidelity.
He also gave “Gone with the Wind” a French connection, imagining Mammy’s childhood as an orphan in the French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue, today’s Haiti, where she was adopted by a French couple.
Following a revolt that led to Haiti’s independence in 1804, the French couple resettles in Savannah, Georgia, where the husband dies. His widow remarries, giving birth to the mother of the future Scarlett O’Hara.
Mammy’s life path leads back to the family, which takes her on as governess to the young child.
“There were thousands of mammies in the American south, most of whom did not have names,” the author said. “Tens of thousands of African-American women have reared the children of affluent whites.”
He added: “I thought the absence of Mammy’s voice, Mammy’s history, Mammy’s personality in ‘Gone with the Wind’ was a great emptiness — sort of like the book told only half of the story.
“She’s a tragic figure that never loses hope. She is determined and has great dignity, but she is no rebel.”
The final third of the book is written from Mammy’s point of view, and it ends a week after the supper that features in the opening chapters of “Gone with the Wind.”
For McCaig, the greatest challenge in writing a prequel to one of the world’s most celebrated novels was “to be both respectful of the original and to have something extra to add.”
“I had considerable freedom” on the part of the Mitchell estate, added the author, who dedicated his work to Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Oscar — for her role as Mammy in the film version of “Gone with the Wind.”