One of my first childhood memories is of the moment I got my own library card, so it's clear that I grew up in a family of readers. I always had a book in my hand, and as I grew into my preteen years I began to veer away from the All-Of-A-Kind Family series to more modern Judy Blume novels, whose heroines held a mirror up to my own life. You can imagine my shock, then, when one day I came home from the library with Forever by Judy Blume — and was told by my mother that I wasn't allowed to read it.
I was 13. My mother wasn't a tyrant. And the author was someone I had read before. "It's the sex," my mother explained. "I don't think you're ready for it."
Well, what's a teenager to do in that situation? I went back to the library and found another book that was all about the relationships between men and women — but I made sure to pick one my mother couldn't possibly object to. A classic. And thus began my literary affair with Gone With the Wind.
Scarlett O'Hara was nothing like me. She was a flirt, she was manipulative, she was beautiful. I was drawn to her like a moth to a flame. And from that very first moment when she threw a tantrum over Ashley and had it unwittingly witnessed by Rhett Butler in the drawing room at Twelve Oaks, I was hooked. I memorized that entire scene, reciting as both Rhett and Scarlett: "Sir ... you are no gentlemen!" "And, you, Miss, are no lady." Scarlett was a girl playing at being a woman; a teenager not ready for the complexities of relationships, who fancied herself an expert. Sound familiar?
As Scarlett and Rhett's relationship unwound against the backdrop of the Civil War, I rooted for them. I cried when Scarlett married someone in spite just to get back at Ashley, who'd picked Melanie. I swooned when Rhett re-entered Scarlett's life after she was widowed. I held my breath when, as Atlanta burned, she turned to the only person she knew she could really trust — the same man she'd sworn to hate. I watched circumstances keep them apart and toss them together — two strong-willed people who couldn't bear to be apart, and who couldn't stand to be together.
Star-crossed love is one of the best stories ever told — Shakespeare knew it, and so did Margaret Mitchell. What makes Scarlett and Rhett so compelling isn't the fact that they are made for each other, but that in spite of that, they will never really find happiness. There is sex in Gone With the Wind — but it happens between the lines. And as it turns out, what I really craved in a "grown-up" book was learning about the relationships: how they could be romantic, intense, painful, overwhelming, euphoric, bitter, and devastating all at once. As a primer for how we fall in and out of love, sometimes against our own best intentions, I could not have picked a better novel.
I credit Gone With the Wind for making me want to become a writer — to create a world out of words like Mitchell did; to breathe characters to life who were as complex as Rhett and Scarlett. But I also credit the book with helping me — and maybe Scarlett — move from the self-centric view of a sheltered teenager to a more relativistic one, where the people we love matter more than our own selves.
For the record? I am 45 years old, and I still have never read Judy Blume's Forever. But I've read and reread Gone With the Wind a half a dozen times.
PG-13 is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman.