Category Archives: Gone With the Wind

The Other Side of the Story

Why We Need Literature – To Tell Us Both Sides

The Second Battle of Ypres

The Second Battle of Ypres, by Richard Jack. {{LAC|C-014145|2837593}}

It’s easy to hate people. How on earth can they think the way they do? What on earth would motivate them to do that? People’s minds are a mystery to us, especially if they’re our enemies. Obviously we have a good reason for whatever things we do, but they just do it because they’re pure evil, don’t they? At least, so we’d like to think till we hear their side of the story.

Good literature is one way to hear the other side of the story. It’s a way of putting yourself behind the eyes of others. And it’s far more subtle than being lectured at or forced to read a dry history of each side.

I first experienced this reading All Quiet on the Western Front. It wasn’t the sort of book I normally read – war fiction still isn’t, unless it’s highly recommended – but I found it on my mother’s bookshelf. I got at least a quarter of the way into it before realizing the characters’ point of view was that of the German soldiers in World War I, not the British as I had thought when I’d started it. (Yes, the book is famous, but I was young enough not to have heard of it before when I read it.) I was astonished “our side” was the side pouring poison gas and shelling the main characters. After all, wasn’t poison gas the nasty, sneaky biochemical weapon the Germans unveiled despite agreements not to use such barbaric things? If the British, Canadians, French, etc., all agreed it was so nasty, why on earth would they start using it themselves? (Incidentally, the Canadian have a whole mythology (somewhat based in fact, of course) surrounding the Second Battle of Ypres. The Germans released 160 tons of chlorine gas, which caused British and French defenses to crumble – but the Canadians staunchly held the line in the face of devastating casualties. This determination thus taught the world exactly what it means to be Canadian.) The answer to my question, of course, is pragmatism. You don’t win wars by being more virtuous than the other side, no matter what your propaganda is telling your people.

On top of all that, the book really shows the point of view of an ordinary German soldier – they were as sick of fighting as anyone, but because of decisions of their superiors, the war went on. One character in particular suggests all the high-ranking government officials who wanted this war should get into an arena and fight each other, without involving ordinary citizens in the misery. This shows the stupidity of taking an official policy of, say, Communism or the Taliban, and imaging every single person on that side believes in it and is fighting because of it. Sometimes the situation is far more complicated than that.

Another book that showed “the other side of the story” was Gone With the Wind. I admit, I read it because it was supposed to be a famous romance, not because it had anything to do with the Civil War. Up until then, all I knew about the Civil War was bits about the North being opposed to slavery and smuggling slaves to Canada (I am Canadian, after all). I had never considered the Southern point of view. Now, this book is controversial in how it portrays the “happy slave” stereotype, and in its somewhat sympathetic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan. That’s not what I mean when I talk about the other side of the story (though it does reveal patterns of thought that justified these things) – what I mean is that it showed me that in war, the North was just as brutal as the South, and their victory set forth a whole string of problems for survival for people such as Scarlett O’Hare. At the very least, it is one example of how those in the South viewed the Civil War. But more importantly, it points out that no matter how “right” one side is (ie: not supporting slavery), doesn’t mean every action of that side will be sunshine and roses.

One last example – Hiroshima. This is a book by a journalist who interviewed several people after the nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and followed up these interviews forty years later. Of course I’d learned about the nuclear bombs from our point of view, about how they were necessary to keep the war from being prolonged, etc., etc. But that doesn’t negate the fact that this action had a huge effect on ordinary citizens going about their lives. Reading about the confusion, the resulting chaos, the lasting radiation sickness and so on, you can never forget that the bomb affected individuals – it won’t let you hide behind the “a million is just a statistic” trope.

This means that while books are a very important tool for understanding each other, they are also a dangerous tool. After all, fiction can twist a point of view until almost any belief can seem right. I think there’s a reason I’ve never read a book from Hitler’s point of view, and I don’t think writing such a book would be at all productive (unless the message was to point out how wrong he was). But I think that advantage here is that books from the other side of the story reflect back to us ourselves – the way we appear in other people’s eyes. They make us unable to avoid seeing ourselves as just as unjust, nasty and brutal as we think the other side is. This is necessary because only if we know our faults can we change them. We need to know we’re just as capable of evil, if pressed. If we wrap ourselves in a cloak of self-righteousness and justification , we’ll be forever wondering why they hate us.

Literature: a powerful force to be wielded responsibly.

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Filed under All Quiet on the Western Front, Gone With the Wind, Hiroshima

The Top Literary Couples as Bad Examples

Juliet Awakes {PD-US}

Healthy Romance Makes Bad Novels, Part II

Last week, I argued that healthy, functioning romances (which we’d probably all enjoy in real life) have trouble generating the kind of conflict that drives romance novels. Logically, the next step would be for me to look at some famous literary romances and see if they were healthy or not. Here goes:

 Romeo and Juliet

First of all, they’re teenagers. Juliet is thirteen. Teenagers aren’t exactly known for being clear-headed, or having well-thought-out romances with each other. Besides that, the two of them get married after knowing each other for a day. A day, and they’re supposed to be desperately in love with each other. Let’s examine their conversation before they tie the knot:

– a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet

– Oh no, you’re a Capulet/Montague!

– Parting is such a sweet sorrow

Does Juliet know Romeo’s strategy for dealing with a crisis is to bawl his eyes out in the friar’s cell? Or run through her cousin with a sword? Wouldn’t you kind of want to know how your husband acts in a tough spot before you marry him?

She doesn’t know him well enough to realize he’ll lose his head if he thinks she’s actually dead, and agrees to a plan where absolutely everything can (and does) go wrong. Which is why the story ends in tragedy.

 Wuthering Heights

Yeah, I’m kicking a book when it’s down here, because NO ONE’s going to argue Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship is healthy. But their destructive conflict certainly drives the plot. On one hand, Catherine marries another man because to marry the one she loves would be ‘degrading.’ In other words, pride trumps treating another person well. Of course, Catherine claims she’s marrying for money in order to better Heathcliff’s life, not bothering to think maybe it’d be downright humiliating to be rescued by the husband of the girl you love. On the other, Heathcliff marries another woman to spite her, holds a grudge, and gets revenge any way he can. In other words, he doesn’t exactly follow the “keep no record of wrongs” part of loving… Well, that’s enough about that.

 Gone With the Wind

Scarlett O’Hara is selfish and pretty blind (it takes her till Chapter 63 of a sixty-three chapter book for her to realize she loves Rhett, and she’d been married to him since Chapter 47!) Of course, Rhett never tells her he loves her until he’s quit loving her… that lack of communication again. The central problem is that she is so self-absorbed that if he’d told her, she would have cast him away like an old rag. But in spite of it all, he’s the old who sees her as she really is – “hard and greedy and unscrupulous, like me.” This dysfunctional romance is truly a result of two self-centered people loving each other.

 

So that’s that for three of the most famous literary romances I can think of. Any other novels you want to throw out there?

By the way, yes, I did run out of quotes to post this Wednesday.

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Filed under Gone With the Wind, Romeo and Juliet, True Romance, Wuthering Heights

Luck of the First-Time Novelist

Guess my Statistics course was good for something…

Conventional wisdom in the writing world says that it takes at least three published novels to establish your name in the public eye. Don’t even think about quitting your day-job until then. But then, while leisurely reading the morning newspaper, I come across the name of Shilpi Somaya Gowda, whose first novel sold 300,000 copies in the first twelve months alone. Then I wonder, what’s the secret?

Because, while conventional wisdom may be accurate for the middle of the bell-curve, you’ve always got the extremes to think about. On one hand you’ve got workhorses like Diana Wynne Jones, or Stephanie Grace Whitson, who churn out books and become well-known but not household names. On the other, you’ve got phenomena like J.K Rowling (who lived off benefits until Harry Potter hit it big-time), and potentially Shilpi Somaya Gowda. Or even Margaret Mitchell (who wrote Gone with the Wind) and J.D Salinger (who wrote Catcher in the Rye) – two authors who only published one novel in their life, and yet said novels are incredibly famous.

I haven’t read Gowda’s book (entitled “Secret Daughter,” in case you were wondering), but I’m going to say there’s probably no reason she doesn’t deserve to be successful. The thing is, there are most likely hundreds of hard-working novelists out there right now, producing brilliant books which never see the kind of success Gowda found. What makes the difference? As someone who hopes to be publish a novel someday myself, is there anything I can do to reduce my chances of slaving away in obscurity?

Why, oh why, do some novelists strike it and some don’t? If I can figure out this pattern, I can turn my first novel into a sure thing.

Dream on, Harma, dream on.

The life of a writer is a bumpy road, full of unpreditabilities.

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Filed under Gone With the Wind, On Writing