05/07/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
As a child Alice Randall loved to burrow in bed reading J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy The Lord of the Rings. But when she was 12, her mother handed her a book whose departures from reality Randall found less pleasing: Margaret Mitchell's 1936 Civil War saga Gone with the Wind. Randall, an African-American, says she was shocked by Mitchell's portrayals of imbecilic slaves, explaining, "I didn't know there were 'nice' people who thought blacks were subhuman until I read Gone with the Wind."
Nearly three decades later, she decided to lampoon the perennial bestseller. In The Wind Done Gone Randall, now 41, sidelines the original's heroine, Scarlett O'Hara, and tells the story from the perspective of her half sister Cynara, an ex-slave born on a plantation called Tata. "I wanted to put something on the bookshelf that could stand beside Gone with the Wind and critique it," says Randall, "so that it would not stand unanswered."
As a result Randall, a country songwriter and screenwriter, finds herself at the center of another civil war—this one waged in a courtroom in Scarlett's hometown of Atlanta. On April 20, U.S. District Court Judge Charles A. Pannell Jr. blocked publication of The Wind Done Gone, which had been scheduled for June. Pannell upheld the arguments of lawyers for Mitchell's estate that Randall violated copyright laws by committing "blatant theft" of GWTW's characters and themes and that her book could be mistaken for an authorized sequel. When a reader finishes Gone with the Wind, Pannell wrote, "he may well wonder what becomes of Ms. Mitchell's beloved characters and their romantic but tragic world." Any book answering that question (such as the bestselling 1991 sequel Scarlett) must be approved by the Mitchell estate, the judge ruled, and the estate is entitled to its share of the profits.
The case has galvanized Randall's fellow writers, 20 of whom—including historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison—have signed a petition in her support. Randall's publisher, Houghton Mifflin, is appealing the ruling, arguing that The Wind Done Gone is a parody and is thus protected by the First Amendment. In an affidavit, bestselling author Pat Conroy wrote, "If you censor her book, then Saturday Night Live has no right to exist."
In fact, experts point out, unauthorized revisions are abundant in literature. "Jean Rhys did Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966, reimagining Jane Eyre with the madwoman in the attic as its heroine," notes Barnard College English professor Anne Lake Prescott. In 1998 author Vladimir Nabokov's son sued to block the U.S. release of Lo's Diary, which retells Lolita from the girl's perspective. The case was settled out of court, and the book was published.
Books have always mattered to Randall. Her father, George, who owned a dry-cleaning business in Detroit before his death in 1996, often reminded her that knowledge is power. "He would thump me on the head with two fingers and say, 'That's the only thing they can't take away from you,' " she recalls. Her parents divorced when she was 8, and she moved to Washington, D.C., with her mother, Bettie, a government analyst who died last May. Randall attended the private Georgetown Day School, then left for Harvard, where she graduated with honors in English in 1981. Afterward, she worked as a writer at the Wolf Trap performing-arts park outside Washington. But Randall had always dreamed of writing country songs, and in 1983 she relocated to Nashville. More than 30 of her tunes have been recorded, including Trisha Yearwood's No. 1 hit "Xxx's and Ooo's (An American Girl)."
Randall shares an antiques-filled home with her husband of four years, lawyer David Ewing, 34, and her daughter Caroline Williams, 13, from a prior marriage. And these days she spends a lot of time thinking about her father. "He hated the South for keeping his relations from being able to vote and his father from being able to read," she says. "I love the South. I live in the South. One of the hopes I have for my book is that it will help more healing to occur—if we're able to publish it."
Sonja Steptoe and Antoinette Coulton in New York City and Michaele Ballard in Atlanta