Saturday, April 5, 2014

Untamed by Helga Moray

Since today is my birthday, my 39th, and I'm feeling rather down as I usually do, I thought I would do something a little different and post a review of both a book and the movie it inspired, since this is one that always makes me smile.

Imagine the plot of Gone With The Wind as a snowglobe given a vigorous shake during which some of the characters fall away and the others are transported to Ireland in 1847 just prior to the great potato famine. Melanie doesn’t exist and young, impetuous Scarlett O’Hara gets her dearest wish and marries her beloved Ashley Wilkes and then spends the rest of the story lusting after Rhett Butler and chasing him all the way to, and all through the wilds of, South Africa, marrying men she doesn't love, making and losing fortunes, popping out numerous babies, and quarreling and making love with the strong, willful man who has stolen her heart whenever they do happen to meet. That pretty much sums up Untamed. Only here Scarlett is a flame-haired Irish lass named Katie Kildare and Rhett is a Dutch freedom fighter, a blonde, strong, silent type named Paul von Riebeck who has devoted his life to establishing a Dutch free state in South Africa.

I decided to read this novel after seeing the 1955 movie starring Susan Hayward and Tyrone Power. It seemed to be trying so hard to be my favorite movie Gone With The Wind (Katie even has a green dress she puts on when she’s ready to wile and beguile; when Paul leaves her to return to fight she loses her temper and says she hates him in a scene reminiscent of Scarlett’s reaction to Ashley’s decision to marry Melanie; there’s even a plantation later on in the story called Abend Bloem—Dutch for Evening Blossom) that I was curious if it was because the book was one of its many imitators or if Hollywood was just trying to recapture its greatest success. 

The truth is, you’ll find the ghost of Gone With The Wind haunting both the book and the movie. The movie is, of necessity, a much condensed, more glamorous, story than the book is, the novel spans many years and isn't afraid to be dirty and rugged, or to depict a woman having half a dozen children, which was common to the 19th century but not to Hollywood’s version of it. 

If you are a reader who shies away from long books, don't worry, that is one similarity Untamed does not share with the mammoth Gone With The WindUntamed is only 286 pages in the vintage paperback edition I have (the first picture at the top of this post), but, a word of warning, it's small type, as these bargain paperback editions tried to cram the whole text in as cheaply as possible, so the original  hardback might be a longer, but more comfortable read and gentler on your eyes.

Some readers might find the writing style of Untamed a tad old-fashioned, and lurid, in a tame and sometimes humorous way compared to books of today, but, overall, I enjoyed the time I spent with this novel, though I have to confess, since I saw the movie first, I had trouble keeping true to the author’s original vision of Paul as a blonde, since Tyrone Power was such a striking brunette.

Reading it was a wonderful excuse—as if I really needed one!—to watch the movie again. But who could resist a scene like this: fiery redheaded Susan Hayward as Katie, and tall, dark, and handsome Tyrone Power as Paul, a cheerful campfire and lively music as the settlers dance and celebrate their victory over a tribe of attacking Zulu warriors who attacked their wagon train, Katie bare shouldered in her green satin ballgown, hardly respectable mourning considering that her first husband has just been killed by the Zulus, standing out amidst all the humble calico-clad matrons and belles, setting out to tempt Paul again, leading him into the shadows to have the following conversation:

Paul: Why did you come to South Africa?

Katie: Didn't you say to leave Ireland and find a new land?

Paul: Yes, well…Australia’s a new land, or America, so why South Africa?

Katie: You!

Paul: Me? You married Sean, brought him, and your child, here for me?

Katie: Yes! Does that shock you?

Paul: Well don’t you think that it should?

It’s a treat! If you like classic movies, watch it, and if you like it, give the book a try too. There’s also a sequel, The Savage Earth, which I plan to read sometime.

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