Ruth’s Journey by Donald McCaig

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Oh dear.  This was dire!  It was supposed to be a prequel to Gone With The Wind, and it sounded like such an interesting idea – a book about the early life of Mammy, and also touching on the life of Scarlett’s intriguingly scandalous grandmother Solange.  Unfortunately, the writing was poor, and the author didn’t capture the character of Mammy at all.  If you’re writing a book about an existing character, then the book needs to be true to that character.  There are probably sides to them that we don’t see, especially when, as in this case, the character exists largely in relation to other characters and we hear next to nothing of their own life; but it still needs to link in with what we do know of them. If that’s not what you want to do, create your own character and write about them instead!

Also, there were umpteen inconsistences with GWTW itself – if you’re going to try to write a prequel to the best-selling novel of all time, read it properly first, and, for heaven’s sake, at least get the names right, if nothing else – and what he wrote about the other characters was beyond stupid.  Ellen, the perfect lady, hanging around in disreputable bars?  Scarlett, whom Mammy watched like a hawk, dressing up as a male jockey and hanging around at the racecourse?   It was just dreadful.  How could anyone make such a mess of writing about some of the most interesting characters in the entire history of fiction?!

Most annoyingly of all, the second half of the book was all about the Robillards and the O’Haras.  No, no, no!  The book was meant to be about Mammy.  So it completely defeated its own point!

The author of this also wrote Rhett Butler’s People, and that wasn’t bad.  This was!  What is the one clue that we’re given to Solange Robillard’s personality?  That she wore a wet petticoat to show the shape of her legs.  Is that one thing mentioned anywhere in this book.  It is not.  There’s also a mention in GWTW of Great-Grandfather Prudhomme, who was forced out of Haiti by the Haitian Revolution.  So we know that Solange’s maiden name was Prudhomme, and that her father was a landowner in Haiti.  Well, everyone else does, but Donald McCaig apparently doesn’t, because he had Solange’s maiden name being Escarlette, and her father living in Brittany.

We’re told that Solange’s first husband (he at least gets the fact that she had three husbands right, although I don’t know why he says that Pauline and Eulalie’s father was her second husband rather than Pierre Robillard) found a small child alone after her mother and been murdered, and that he and Solange took her in and named her Ruth.  This was the child who became Mammy.  That works, at least.  They move to Savannah.  OK.  Ruth, when she’s 15, wants to marry a free black man.  Solange agrees to let him buy her, so that the two of them can be together, and they move to Charleston … where he gets involved in Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion.

OK, this could have happened, and marks for bringing Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion into it.  The actual history was pretty much accurate.  And the portrayal of young Ruth wasn’t that bad: you could see how that young woman might have become the Mammy we know from GWTW.  But we were then told that her husband was hanged by Rhett Butler’s dad.  What??  OK, Mammy does take a dislike to Rhett when she first meets him, but that’s because she can see what a bad lot he is.  The name “Butler” doesn’t mean anything to her until Rhett comes along.  An she changes her mind about him when she sees what a good father he is to Bonnie.  Would she really have done that, and lived under his roof at all – she could have said she was going back to Tara, as she did later – if his dad had hanged her husband?  The story, which also involved her child being sold and then dying, which was very poignant, might have worked without the Butler link.  As it was, it didn’t.

She then smacks her new owner over the head with a heavy object when he tries it on with her, bullies him into giving her a pass, and makes her way back to Savannah.  Come on – how likely is that to have happened?  And, from then on, the story isn’t even about her anyway.  We move on to this nonsense about Ellen hanging around in bars.  No, no, no.  Yes, Ellen wants to marry her dodgy cousin Philippe.  Her father’s supposed to have run him out of town.  He gets killed in a bar room brawl – that bit at least is sort of included accurately.  But Ellen hanging around in disreputable bars?  Hardly!  Even if she’d wanted to, Mammy wouldn’t have let her.  That’s the whole point.  Mammy keeps an eye on her.

Ellen then marries Gerald O’Hara.  There is a vague nod to her threat to go into a convent, but only in passing: there’s no big showdown with her dad, who doesn’t seen very interested.  And who’s a Baptist.  OK, at least McCaig got the fact that he was a Protestant right, but how many French Baptists are there?

Then all the familiar Clayton County crowd turn up.  Ashley Wilkes seems to be much older than he should be.  So does Cathleen Calvert.  Raif Calvert, even though we know that he and Scarlett were friendly as children, is hardly mentioned.  Suellen seems to have a lot of beaux – er, no.  And Scarlett is known as Katie until she’s about 15.  WTF?!  OK, she’s Katie Scarlett, but she’s always “Miss Scarlett”.  And there’s all this utter nonsense about Scarlett going off riding by herself, and dressing up as a jockey and hanging around racecourses.  Excuse me?  This is Scarlett, who worries about concealing “small breaches of etiquette” from her elders, hanging around racecourses in men’s clothing?!  And, again, as if the daughter of a Southern plantation owner would have been able to get away with doing that?  Mammy watched her every move!  And when was there ever the slightest suggestion that Scarlett was interested in racing anyway?!

As if all this isn’t stupid enough, Mammy has some sort of vision of Scarlett marrying Rhett and their child dying.  This is in early 1861.  Mammy didn’t even know that Rhett existed until Scarlett decided to dress up in the green curtains to go and visit him, after the war.  She never met him at the Twelve Oaks barbecue.  Or, if she did, it was only in passing.  She doesn’t know who he is when Scarlett says she’s going to get the money from “Rhett”.

And the book was meant to be about Mammy, not about the O’Haras!  On top of all this, most of the second half of the book, from Ellen’s marriage onwards, is narrated by Mammy, and it’s all in “I’se gwine …” dialect.  Now, I know that views differ as to whether or not it’s appropriate to write an African-American character as speaking or thinking in … I think the term “Ebonics” is used now.  But I personally am not keen on it.   We don’t see Solange speaking or thinking in Franglais.  I’d rather have had things in standard English.  That’s my view: other people’s may differ.  And we just lost who Mammy was … Mammy would never, ever have let either Ellen or Scarlett behave like that.  She would have known what they were up to, and stopped it.

And where was her story?  Once she was back with Solange, all she was doing was being the Robillards’/O’Haras’ Mammy.  The point of this book was meant to be to show that she was so much more than that.

It was a good idea.  But it was certainly not a good book.  Don’t bother reading this.  It’s really not worth it.