A "reread" would elicit groans from the group if we were talking about a page-turner, but "Gone with the Wind" celebrates 75 years in print this summer and respect is due.
I first read Scarlett O'Hara's story years ago, the life and times of that self-centered girl who was forced by war to swap her hoop skirts for dirt under her fingernails.
To save Tara, her family home, she killed a Union soldier, mopping up his blood with a batiste nightgown, then stole her sister's "intended" because he had money enough to pay Tara's taxes. She picked cotton until her hands bled.
Critics have refused to give "Gone with the Wind" their stamp of approval as a great novel, but their opinions have not influenced readers, who bought a million copies of the book during the first six months after it was published and continue to read it today.
A second chance to visit author Margaret Mitchell's characters returns them as the backbone of the story of a South, brought to its knees by loss: decimated crops, burned cities and towns, a quarter million of her sons killed in the Civil War and one-third of her horses lost in battles or from starvation.
With those hard truths in mind, essayist John Cloud discounts "Gone with the Wind" as a romance novel. The book is a "gritty eulogy," Cloud writes, the story of a place with "nothing left to tax but the ground itself" and no cotton crops in the fields to pay the taxes.
Mitchell left the shame of the wounds of slavery for historians to deal with, choosing instead to pull fictional slaves of the O'Hara family from the shadows, giving them voice and presence.
Scarlett may sass her black maid, Mammy, who has raised her, but Mammy is no shrinking violet, and it is Gerald O'Hara's house servant to whom Scarlett gives her father's gold pocket watch after his death.
Though the book has been termed "retrograde," one looking back and stuck in time, Margaret Mitchell did not hesitate to shine light on the steely spines of women, who kept hearth and home together when men went off to war.
Once considered too fragile for weighty conversations shared by men after dinner, it is Scarlett O'Hara who saves Tara's family, black and white, not the genteel Ashley Wilkes, a dreamer, who comes home from the war, intending to leave a broken South, but hasn't the will to walk away from the temptation of Scarlett, herself, or the livelihood she offers.
To Rhett Butler, the daring outsider from Charleston, Scarlett confesses "money is the most important thing in the world." This frees essayist Cloud to conclude "Gone with the Wind" is, in fact, an "unrelenting tale of how honor gives way to greed."
Let's assume he means the South chose to hold fast to a way of life that included slavery as its work engine and entered into the Lost Cause to protect and defend her people and the future of cotton, the largest export of the country.
Even an ensuing war of unspeakable death and destruction cannot summon greed as the dark force in "Gone with the Wind." If anything, the book champions duty. How many young boys, peach fuzz on their faces, walked off farms to fight, coming from bottom land where no slaves were owned or ever would be?
Mitchell told her publisher if there was a theme in "Gone with the Wind," it was survival in the face of unimaginable loss. "I wrote about people who had gumption and those who didn't," she explained.
And 75 years later? Frankly, my dears, we still give a damn about their lives, writ large in "Gone with the Wind."
Judy Elliott is an award- winning columnist in Marietta.