Ruth’s Journey: The Authorized Novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind by Donald McCaig

A familiar, but not unoriginal, expansion on a beloved character from a classic American epic.

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In Ruth’s Journey: The Authorized Novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Donald McCaig (Rhett Butler’s People) tells the full story of Scarlett’s beloved nursemaid. He begins in France with Miss Solange, a wealthy heiress who travels to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). There she takes in a local child to be part servant, part daughter, and names her Ruth, then moves to Savannah. Switching focus to Ruth, McCaig details her eventual brief marriage to a free man in Charleston, years of tragedy and rebellion, and her return to Savannah.

Though McCaig does touch a bit on Scarlett’s well-known story, the bulk of the narrative is focused on Ruth’s early life: the voyage to the U.S., her transition to adulthood, her loves and losses, and the moment she deliberately gives up her name and identity in favor of a new moniker: Mammy. Miss Solange has a daughter, Ellen, who in turn gives birth to the memorable Katie Scarlett O’Hara. Where Scarlett is petulant, Mammy is resilient. Through decades of love, death and betrayal, she consciously puts on a smile. She is cursed to foresee the ugly futures of those she cares for, but, as she repeats to herself, it is not for mammies to speak all that they see.

McCaig echoes the saucy, tongue-in-cheek tone of Mitchell’s classic. Mammy’s story is complex, and she commands respect. Lovers of Gone with the Wind will be the most obvious fans of Ruth’s Journey, but it stands on its own merits as a sweeping epic of time, place and history, thoroughly worthy of its inspiration.


(Final comment: Those readers who were concerned with the racial insensitivity of Mitchell’s original will not find any clear redemption or compensation here; but McCaig’s treatment is respectful and nuanced, certainly no worse and arguably slightly better than the classic in this regard.)


This review originally ran in the October 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 husbands.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

John Vaillant, nonfiction author, makes his fiction debut with a shockingly beautiful and painful novel called The Jaguar’s Children.

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At the border town of Altar in the Mexican state of Sonora, a taking-off point for many immigrants who buy the services of coyotes to cross into Arizona…

There are stalls there with things to buy, but there is nothing for the house or the milpa, nothing nice to eat or to wear. Besides expensive water, it is mostly clothes and almost all of them are black or gray – T-shirts, jackets, balaclavas and gloves, even the bags – so you can be invisible in the desert, in the dark, because that is what a migrante needs to be to make it in el Norte.

Stay tuned for a Maximum Shelf to come. I am excited to share this one.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

book beginnings on Friday: The Room by Jonas Karlsson

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

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The opening lines of The Room read:

The first time I walked into the room I turned back almost at once. I was actually trying to find the toilet but got the wrong door. A musty smell hit me when I opened the door, but I don’t remember thinking much about it. I hadn’t actually noticed there was anything at all along this corridor leading to the lifts, apart from the toilets. Oh, I thought. A room.

I opened the door, then shut it. No more than that.

And I think I’ll leave it at that for you. Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck (audio)

tortillaTortilla Flat is set in the neighborhood by that name in post-WWI Monterey, California, and involves a group of paisano friends. Perhaps I am just being lazy, but I do think that Steinbeck himself can tell you best what the book undertakes. I give you the first paragraph of his Preface:

This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how these three became one thing, so that in Tortilla Flat if you speak of Danny’s house you do not mean a structure of wood flaked with old whitewash, overgrown with an ancient untrimmed rose of Castile. No, when you speak of Danny’s house you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts are men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow. For Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it. And this is the story of how that group came into being, of how it flourished and grew to be an organization beautiful and wise. This story deals with the adventuring of Danny’s friends, with the good they did, with their thoughts and endeavors. In the end, this story tells how the talisman was lost and how the group disintegrated.

And that is, very much, what the book is about.

Danny inherits two houses from his grumpy grandfather upon returning from the war. He is astonished by his good fortune and newfound riches, but also dismayed at the great responsibility of owning property. He takes in friends, one by one by one, and they become a strange, disordered household. It is true that critical readings of this book treat it as an interpretation of the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table; but I think it’s worth pointing out that these men are a rather dirty, devious, and intermittently disloyal version thereof. They steal from each other on occasion; and their main purpose in life is to obtain wine, and drink it. Not necessarily a bad thing. Steinbeck writes as impressively as ever about the wine:

Two gallons is a great deal of wine, even for two paisanos. Spiritually the jugs maybe graduated thus: Just below the shoulder of the first bottle, serious and concentrated conversation. Two inches farther down, sweetly sad memory. Three inches more, thoughts of old and satisfactory loves. An inch, thoughts of bitter loves. Bottom of the first jug, general and undirected sadness. Shoulder of the second jug, black, unholy despondency. Two fingers down, a song of death or longing. A thumb, every other song each one knows. The graduations stop here, for the trail splits and there is no certainty. From this point anything can happen.

You might also call it a picaresque, being full of minor adventures that often run to humor and pathos by turns.

My audio version is narrated by John McDonough, and I like his interpretation very much. The Spanish-in-translation word order and sentence structure gives an accurate paisano feel, and McDonough reflects that in the lilt and rhythm of his speech. (Note that I did not say he puts on an accent.) I enjoyed hearing this story told. I did not always like the players, but that’s not a requirement for liking a book.

I won’t rate this one above the best of the Steinbeck I have read, Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men. But it is recognizably Steinbeck, and worth the time.


Rating: 7 jugs of wine, naturally.

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

The self-made girl of Caitlin Moran’s debut novel is irreverent, painfully self-conscious, triumphant and very funny.

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The wise and hilarious Caitlin Moran (How to Be a Woman; Moranthology) makes her first foray into fiction with How to Build a Girl, and this novel is everything her fans will expect it to be.

It is the early 1990s. Johanna Morrigan is 14 years old and lives in Wolverhampton, England, with her parents and four siblings: an older brother, a younger brother and two babies without names (known long-term as the Unexpected Twins). They are all on government assistance, or benefits. Her mother is depressed and her father is still distributing the demo tapes of his youth, sure that one day he’ll be a rock star. Johanna is desperate to leave behind Wolverhampton, benefits and her virginity.

Her big chance comes when she scores a television appearance during which she will read aloud her prize-winning poem on the theme of “Friendship.” However, she fails to make her family proud, instead surprising even herself with a shameful impromptu Scooby-Doo impression. Deciding that being Johanna Morrigan is a losing proposition, she sets about methodically building the girl she wants to be: she christens herself Dolly Wilde (after Oscar’s niece), and decides to become a music critic. With no money to acquire the latest albums, however, she is resigned to ordering them through the local library.

Dolly Wilde is constructed on the music of Hole, Bikini Kill, David Bowie and Kate Bush; the writing of Dorothy Parker, Orwell and Kerouac; and a blind ambition to reach London. She sends in one album review per day for 27 days until, amazingly, she is hired to review albums and performances for Disc and Music Echo. From Dolly’s very first encounter with live music, this gig ushers in an era of drink, sex and eventually drugs; she happily pursues the lifestyle of the rock stars she admires, but is challenged to reconcile this new life with her household of seven back at home in Wolverhampton.

In order to fall in love with the clumsily charming and often heartbreaking Johanna, readers will want to check their inhibitions regarding four-letter words and copious masturbation. Puzzles as stale as the difference between love and a casual hookup become fresh in this young woman’s vigorous, enthusiastic and ever-misguided perspective. Moran is cheeky, intelligent, thought-provoking and laugh-out-loud funny, and reminds us that we are always learning and rebuilding, no matter our origins.


This review originally ran in the September 9, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 cigarettes.

De Potter’s Grand Tour by Joanna Scott

A fantastical mystery of historical fiction, peopled by amiable eccentrics.

de potter

Joanna Scott (The Manikin) spins a mysterious, slightly fanciful historical yarn in De Potter’s Grand Tour. The titular character is variously called Armand de Potter, Pierre Louis Armand de Potter d’Elseghem or (to the immigration authorities) Pierce L.A. Depotter Elsegern; his personal history is as amorphous and changeable as his name. De Potter lives a legend of his own design, beginning with his immigration to New York from Belgium in the early 1870s, determined to become a person of note. He joins a local society in dredging up oddities from the harbor, which sparks his interest in antiquities. With a few astute investments, he soon becomes an accomplished collector specializing in Egyptian artifacts. He simultaneously works as a teacher (educating aristocratic young ladies in multiple languages), and eventually channels all his skills and interests into a travel and touring company, which has great success. Years later, his wife, Aimée (a former student, born Amy), is devastated when he is lost at sea.

The grieving Aimée finds herself unexpectedly debt-ridden and receives a disturbing final letter from her late husband, which prompts her to examine his past more closely. It now appears that Armand looked to The Count of Monte Cristo as a model for the building of his myth. As Aimée ages, she yearns for her husband, and wonders what really happened on that ship that sailed from Constantinople.

Scott’s tone is whimsical, and her characters are idiosyncratic and appealing. De Potter’s charming tale, told in split chronology both before and after Armand’s disappearance, will please readers seeking a playful trip back in time.


This review originally ran in the September 2, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 gold watch charms.

Teaser Tuesdays: Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

tortilla

I am pleased to return to old standbys from time to time. It has been too long since I’ve read any Hemingway. And Steinbeck is another love, one I’ve not explored enough. This audio production of Tortilla Flat, an early novel of his, is going well for me so far. I wanted to share a few lines that I think show what he can do with simple language. Tell me this doesn’t paint a scene – one you’d be happy to inhabit, in fact.

The grace was not quite so sharp to Pilon when he could not tell Big Joe about it, but he sat and watched the treasure place while the sky grayed and the dawn came behind the fog. He saw the pine trees take shape and emerge out of obscurity. The wind died down and the little blue rabbits came out of the brush and hopped about on the pine needles. Pilon was heavy-eyed but happy.

This makes me feel peaceful.

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