Why I read Ruth’s Journey
I ran across this books a few weeks ago when Gone With the Wind came up in connection with a post. I’ve never really been interested in reading take offs on novels that are written by different authors, but I’ve recently read and enjoyed Longbourne, which is the story of one of the servants in the home in Pride and Prejudice, so that alone encouraged me…and then of course, in Ruth’s Journey, the point is addressing the slaves as they are depicted in Gone With the Wind.
I know I’m not supposed to like Gone With the Wind because of its revisionist history and most especially because of its depiction of slavery, but in spite of these issues, I’ve always liked Gone With the Wind because of Scarlett. I think a lot of women secret admire her ability to manipulate men, which for better or worse has never been something I’m good at, and I most especially admire her determination and willingness to work. And for the most part, except for her attitude towards her family’s slaves, she is a realist. Toward the end of the novel, Mitchell shows the beginning of the veneration of the Civil War “heroes”, and also shows that Scarlett is irritated by it and wants nothing to do with it.
The fact is, which is shown much more in the book than in the film, without Scarlett, a lot of people would have gone down after the war. She saves both her immediate family and her extended family, not to mention her in-laws (remember, Melanie is her sister in law). And while most certainly the Black members of her family, as she considers them, are in the mess they are in because of the institution of slavery, but Scarlett never turns her back on them. She takes care of them just as much as she does the White members of her family, even when none of them have enough to eat. The worst she ever does is to tell them that they have to work, but she says the same thing to her sisters, and she herself works the hardest of all.
She is disgusted by people who yearn for the “old days” and expect to be taken care of. She admires people who figure out a way to make a living and get on with it.
I’m not saying Scarlett’s perception is correct, but as hardhearted as she can be, if she considers you family, that’s it, whether you want to be in that family or not. I’m acknowledging, of course, that the slaves did not, and of course nearly all of the O’Hara’s slaves leave as soon as they can.
Back to Ruth, however…Ruth’s Journey is a prequel to Gone with the Wind that focuses on the life of Mammy, and through that, tells the story of the family through Scarlett’s mother. This book was commissioned by the Margaret Mitchell foundation, and Donald McCaig was especially chosen because of his knowledge of the Civil War.
Why You Should Read Ruth’s Journey
At first I was a bit put off by the story, first because it’s hard to follow as it starts in Haiti. Between the unfamiliar setting and use of French, I was having a bit of a hard time. I was also a bit put off at first because the story seemed to center too much on Solange, Scarlett’s grandmother, rather than Ruth (Mammy). I thought, couldn’t they let her be the protagonist of her own story? But I suppose it would be difficult to tell the story through a child’s point of view because a child simply would not have known what was going on. So the author has to either choose to tell only what the child could understand…which would be even more confusing for a reader unfamiliar with the events…or filter everything through an adult.
As Ruth gets older and leaves Solange, she also finally gets her own voice. She also gets an unexpected amount of agency in her own life, and her story takes the reader into some of the slave revolts of the decades leading up to the Civil War and also why a system that was more open had to reassert itself in order to prevent the whole system from collapsing….
I mean to say, it would have been better if it had collapsed, but according to the book, the slave system had to get stricter in order to survive in its last years, which does make sense as the freedmen and the slaves would have been able to get more support as overall public attitudes changes and slavery started to become outlawed in Europe and the northern states of the U.S.
You also get to see the ironies in the system when you suddenly realize that Ruth is literally considered the property of her husband, a free Black man…being bought by your husband did not automatically confer emancipation, which was apparently another legal process that was difficult, and became impossible, to navigate. I suppose if white men could have slave concubines, Black men could too although one would think that a legal, church wedding, which they had, would override that. One would think.
In order to give Ruth some agency in her life, she lives as a free person during her marriage, but because her husband never formally emancipates her, she returns to slavery after his death.
Some other details of the plot in this section of the book seem a bit far fetched to me, but of course as a reader, I knew that Ruth has to be with the Robillard family for Scarlett’s birth, and she is…almost by her own free will. Almost. The incident that gets Ruth back to the Robillard family I find the most far fetched in the book.
I would have preferred acknowledgement of Ruth’s situation as the best option among some very bad choices.
But overall, the story and the writing isn’t a bad, and it is worth reading and judging for oneself.
Despite the sometimes surprising turns Ruth’s life takes, the author does keep a voice and character that rings true with Mitchell’s original character. Really, to an amazing extent, I think. He also shows the authority that the slaves did exert, over each other and at times, over their white “masters”. Certainly, at times, she seems less mindful of her role than perhaps is realistic, but perhaps not. I think this novel does show a bit more clearly than GWTW that neither of Scarlett’s parents were, in fact, the “American royalty” Scarlett may have believed them to be, and in fact few of their neighbors were either…their home was barely inside what would have been considered the frontier.
Of course, the author also had quite a lot of leeway with his material since as far as I can remember, in more than 1,000 pages, Mitchell never gives Mammy a name or even a backstory of any kind, except to say that she had come with Scarlett’s mother from Charleston.
In light of the events that have been going on for the last few weeks with regard to the Black Lives Matter movement, reading Ruth’s Journey, which overlaps with the first 100 page or so of Gone with the Wind, makes me sad. Sad because I know what is about to happen to the white characters (and its not like things are so great for the Black characters either, despite their getting their freedom…), but even more sad that they couldn’t lift their heads up, look around, and realize that slavery was over, at least in the West. England and the rest of Europe had shut their systems down, even in their colonies, the Northern U.S. had shut its system down…but as we Americans are wont to do, the south doggedly continued on. And on, and on. We all know perfectly well that the way Black people have and do get treated is wrong. I thought we had all moved past it, but still, it continues.
Thank God they are finally taking down those stupid Confederate statues.
Donald McCaig was from Montana and studied sheepherding before moving to Virginia’s Bath County.
He received awards for his Civil War novel of Virginia, Jacob’s Ladder, and he also wrote another authorized (by the Margaret Mitchell estate) prequel to Gone With the Wind called Rhett Butler’s People.
Why You May Not Want to read Ruth’s Journey
It would have been really cool if the Margaret Mitchell estate had the nerve to commission a Black person to write Mammy’s story, and that’s the ultimate flaw with Ruth’s Journey. This book is well done, I’m pretty sure that one could argue that it is historically accurate, but the problem is that it is still a white person’s story. This book definitely is from a white person’s perspective, and I detect more than a whiff of Confederate apologetics.
As I said, the story shows Ruth’s choosing to go back to the Robillard family at a point in her life when she probably could have made other choices, including her own freedom…if opportunity to make that choice is even realistic, which I question.
The Mammy in Southern Culture
I started by thinking about Hattie McDaniel and some other African American women who became famous for playing “Mammy” characters. Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to win an Academy Award for her portrayal of “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind.
I found some interesting material, particularly a book called Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender and Southern Memory that I found through a very interesting Wikipedia article.
This book might be difficult to find, but the author, Kimberly Wallace-Sanders explains some of her ideas through a description of a photo exhibit of Black caretakers/White children she curated at Emory University, where she is a professor.
Here are the books she mentions:
These two books depict similar “mammies” even though one was written by a Southerner and one was written by an abolitionist.
These books portray the “mammy” experience from the point of view of the Black caregiver:
Hattie McDaniel, pictured above, is famous for playing “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind and becoming the first African American to win an Oscar. Here is a book about her life and a study of African Americans and the Academy Award.
You Tell Us
What books do you think best depict the situation of Black caregivers and domestics in the South?