Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro
What was Donald McCaig thinking when he undertook writing Ruth’s Journey (Atria Books 2014), the so-called prequel to Gone with the Wind?
First, it’s a bold idea to tackle any prequel, let alone one designed to set the stage for the second most popular book ever sold in America. But if you are a 74-year-old 21st century white male, it’s an even bolder move to structure the prequel as the story of an enslaved black woman in the decades before the War Between the States.
McCaig is no stranger to this business, having written Rhett Butler’s People (St. Martin’s Press 2007), which served as both prequel and sequel to Gone with the Wind. So, at least to some degree, he knew what he was getting into. But Rhett Butler’s People is a story about a privileged white man written by another privileged white man. In Ruth’s Journey, McCaig strains his imagination and the bounds of his research to cross gender, servitude, and racial lines.
So, did McCaig pull it off with Ruth’s Journey?
It depends upon who you ask, of course, and in the end, you the reader should give it a fair read and see what you think.
But, be forewarned. Be prepared to be disappointed.
Setting aside for the moment that Ruth’s Journey doesn’t have the dynamic prose, edge-of-your-chair storytelling or vivid details of Gone with the Wind, McCaig’s story is supposed to be about Ruth, better known as Mammy. We know it is supposed to be about Mammy because the cover of the book states: “The authorized novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.”
But it’s not really about Mammy, a/k/a Ruth. Sure, there’s a small segment in which Ruth gets married and moves to Charleston. There, she and her husband become involved with the historical figure of Denmark Vesey and his aborted slave revolt, predictably to a tragic end. That small part about Ruth’s life in Charleston totals out at 55 pages. The book is 372 pages. Which means only roughly one-sixth of the book is actually about Ruth.
The first chapter hints that Ruth herself is not going to dominate the storyline, no matter what the book cover says. After nineteen pages of a cursory tale about a French couple sent to violence-torn Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti), a young Ruth finally appears in a sprinkle of three paragraphs at the end of the chapter. And even then, McCaig makes no attempt to show or to tell how the child feels, dripping as she is with the blood of her slaughtered mother. Instead, he tells the readers about the white guy’s reaction.
Who then is the book actually and specifically about if not Ruth? That would be Scarlett O’Hara’s mother Ellen (briefly) and grandmother Solange (mostly), with a dose of Scarlett’s grandfather tossed in as a plot necessity given that he’s mentioned in Gone with the Wind and somebody had to be Ellen’s father.
Mind you, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a prequel predominantly focused on Scarlett’s mother and grandmother. These are interesting women, each strong and conflicted and challenged in turn as McCaig does a decent job of telling their stories. But why didn’t the publisher and author just own up to this and call the book Scarlett’s People, making it a match for Donald McCaig’s other authorized Gone with the Wind prequel/sequel Rhett Butler’s People?
It’s not just that Ruth gets so little on-stage time in the novel; it’s also that the woman called Ruth isn’t…well, she’s not Mammy, or at least not the one that Margaret Mitchell brought vividly to life in Gone with the Wind. Ruth is strangely passive and willingly subservient for most of the story. Oh, sure, (slight plot spoiler here) Ruth fights for her virtue against the drunken advances of her master (perhaps ironically portrayed as a decent kind of guy for a whiskey-guzzling, slave-owning chronic gambler). But otherwise Ruth comes dangerously close to being exactly what an auctioneer calls her in Charleston: docile.
Perhaps more than docility, there is something so ingratiating about Ruth that she is all but obsequious at times. This trait appears from the first time the readers meet Ruth as a child. Dripping with the blood of her slaughtered family, the child volunteers (with what McCaig calls “buoyant charm” no less) to milk a goat for the French soldier who finds her hiding under a basket. And, yes, slaves and other captives no doubt learn to act this way for their survival. But in Ruth’s Journey, Ruth doesn’t appear to be acting, she appears more often than not to actually be that way. Not always, mind you, but often enough to give pause.
Even when Ruth does show her inner and outer strength in conking her drunken master over the head rather than submitting to his sexual advances, she does not follow up with a quest for freedom. She simply demands that he write her a pass so that someone else can buy her as a slave. Her master doesn’t want to lose her, or so McCaig tells us, but he consents to Ruth’s demand. McCaig does not tell us why he does so, but one could infer he acts out of a sense of shame. If the man was contrite enough to give Ruth that much of an upper hand, why didn’t she demand her freedom instead of merely asking to be sold to someone else? But she doesn’t even try for freedom.
It is almost as if McCaig stuck his head in the same bucket full of moonlight-and-magnolia myths as Margaret Mitchell did, as if he never even heard of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years as a Slave or read any of the nonfiction exposes of American slavery such as Eugene D. Genovese’s groundbreaking Roll, Jordon, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (Vintage 1976). Perhaps Mitchell, growing up a provincial Georgia Southern Belle in a white culture still reeling from the devastation of the War Between the States and regaled from infancy with the tales of the Glorious Lost Cause, can be excused for indulging in all that happy slave nonsense. It’s possible that in her privileged and insular Southern white upbringing, she didn’t know any better—or did not want to know better. But McCaig is a worldlier author—born and educated in Montana, the man had a successful New York City career in advertising and ties to a progressive past. He also had the advantage of another seven and a half decades of scholarly research that produced such happy-slave-myth-shattering books as Roll Jordon Roll. He should have known better!
Perhaps there is nothing wrong per se with writing a book about a more docile slave than, say, Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but the problem with a submissive Mammy Ruth is that she is simply not the Mammy in Gone With the Wind. Without delving into plot spoilers it’s hard to explain, but let’s try one example. In Ruth’s Journey, Mammy Ruth cannot control the headstrong young Scarlett, who runs wild and does precisely what she wishes to do. In a chapter told in Ruth’s voice and titled “How I is Judas,” Ruth learns that Scarlett plans to dress as a boy and race her horse in a decidedly men-only event. Ruth doesn’t confront her or in any way try to stop her. Rather, Ruth tattles on Scarlett to Gerald O’Hara and leaves it to him to stop his headstrong daughter from ruining her reputation before she’s even old enough to moon after Ashley Wilkes.
Yet, in Gone With the Wind, on at least two occasions where Scarlett and Mammy butt heads, Mammy is the clear victor. When Scarlett refuses to pre-eat before the Wilkes barbeque, Mammy is the more powerful personality and in the end, Scarlett does exactly as Mammy tells her to do. Later, when Scarlett determines to go to Atlanta to seek the tax money for Tara from Rhett, she tells Mammy she is going alone. But Mammy insists that she will go with Scarlett. Again, Scarlett capitulates to Mammy’s demands, even though she thinks she might as well have a bloodhound on her trail as to have Mammy.
There are these moments when Ruth does show spirit, as when she refuses to fetch water for a visiting child or when she and another slave sabotage the advances of a husband-seeking woman stalking Ruth’s widowed master. These interludes suggest what Ruth’s Journey could have been, but McCaig never sustains either the spirit or the momentum in such scenes.
All that happy slave/glorious lost cause mythology in Gone with the Wind has thankfully not stood the test of time (nor should it have). Now that we all pretty much know better (or should), McCaig could have debunked the myths as Sue Monk Kid does in The Invention of Wings (Viking Adult 2014), a novel touching on similar themes and history, but with a great deal more force, accuracy, and passion.
Be that as it may, the Mammy of the original novel is still no sap. And certainly she is not docile, passive or obsequious. In many ways Mitchell’s Mammy shares some traits with Scarlett: both are feisty, smart, and full of gumption. Mammy is not afraid to call Scarlett and Rhett mules or to order Scarlett about.
But in Ruth’s Journey, somehow that Mammy rarely shows up.
Here’s something else about Ruth’s Journey that is disappointing—and hard to say. It’s not written very well. This is a surprise as McCaig has repeatedly proven himself to be a very capable writer with previous books. But in Ruth’s Journey, his talent is not so obvious. There are these long strange rambling sequences that seem to have little to do with Ruth or the plot and which toss out multiple characters for no apparent reason, yet go on and on. Then, when the single most horrible thing that could ever happen to Ruth does happen, McCaig gives the event less than a page—six paragraphs to be exact.
It’s not just this irritatingly uneven plotting that spoils the book, but Ruth’s Journey has sloppy prose, clichés, neck jarring transitions, and a superficiality that in spots makes it read more like a synopsis than a novel. And while the last smidgen is told in Ruth’s own voice, most of the novel is told in an inconsistent omniscience point of view. The unknown but all-knowing narrator is alternatively snide, preachy, terribly bored, or glib—or just hurrying to get through with it.
And that’s finally where a lot of readers might well find themselves—hurrying to get through with this disappointing book.
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