This is the longest I've ever spent reading a book. I remember plowing through the Lord of the Rings series in a matter of weeks when I was a fanatic middle-schooler, but finishing this one took me literal months. Granted I was really only reading on my lunch break, but still. We spent a lot of time together, and I loved every minute of it.
This book is amazing. A masterpiece. Fully deserving of every accolade it's received and unquestionably a classic. The plot, the characters, the writing... there's nothing I can say that hasn't already been said. They're excellent, bar none. Unfortunately, I feel like the art of this book gets lost under the cloud of its racism.
I came to the book expecting it to be racist. I definitely wasn't disappointed. The story is written by a privileged white woman and is told from a privileged white woman's perspective, so I don't think anyone can be surprised by that. To me, that's kind of the point. I picked up this book as research for my (still) forthcoming novel, Just Passing Through, and I wanted to read about the South from the white perspective so I could better understand it.
The interesting thing about racism is that we have a hard time seeing it in ourselves. Racism wears a lot of faces. It's everything from enslaving a group of people because of their skin colour to being horrified at interracial marriage to believing that black people need to be shepherded and protected to disbelieving that black people are equal to whites. The first type of racism, that loud, angry, let's-go-out-and-lynch-someone racism is pretty obvious. The second type often gets dressed up as charity, religion, or moral superiority, and can be harder to recognize for what it is.
Reading this book, I can better understand how, in the minds of the formerly privileged, now disenfranchised whites, their mindsets and behaviours could be both justified and completely divorced from the notion of racism. These upright, genteel people went from believing they were the cream of the societal crop to being faced with the reality that they were wrong all along. That's a very difficult thing to reconcile. So instead of admitting that everything they had was at the expense of another human being's freedom and dignity and shouldn't have belonged to them in the first place, their focus shifted to who was to blame for what they'd lost. The Yankee army. The Carpetbaggers. The "trashy free-issue niggers". Their focus shifted to protecting what they still clung to from the old days, be it their farms, values, or wives and daughters, and it came from a place of righteousness. They were protecting their own, from everyone, at all costs. I can understand how such anger and impotence could lead to justifying things like lynchings or the KKK. That obviously doesn't make it right. But I can understand it.
I've read reviews for this book that call for it to be taken out of print, burned, denounced, etc. I think that's way off base. I think this book should be read and discussed so that we can all better understand where the other is coming from. Does this book glorify the antebellum South? Absolutely. Should it be taken as gospel? Absolutely not. But we should recognize that the narrative in this work of fiction is the truth for generations of people who've grown up listening to their own family history.
Just like the Civil War and Reconstruction didn't magically wipe out the disparity between blacks and whites, shutting down dialogue about racial tensions won't make it go away either. The Civil War changed things for everyone and arguably made things harder for everyone. We still feel the repercussions now. The slaves may have been freed but the slaveowners' minds weren't changed, and that still-prevalent mindset will remain unchanged unless it can first be understood. You can't argue with ignorance, after all. But once you know why someone believes what they do, then you have your foot in the door.