Swept away
GWTW enthusiasts looking forward to new novel

Apparently, there's a whole culture devoted to the cultural phenomenon that is "Gone With the Wind."

"You'd be surprised ... There are a lot of Windies out there," said Anne Stanford, spokeswoman for the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum.

Um, what's a Windy?

A Windy, explained Stanford, is someone who has seen "Gone With the Wind" more than a few dozen times. A Windy has read Margaret Mitchell's masterpiece cover to cover and knows the story front, back and inside out. A Windy is someone who puts their life on hold for all things Rhett and Scarlett. A Windy is a fan to the extreme. Robert Warren is such a Windy.

"Oh yeah, I fall into the Windy category," Warren said. "I first saw 'Gone With the Wind' when I was in seventh grade, and I've been bitten ever since."

Proving his faithfulness, Warren took a few days off work this past week to prepare for the release of "Rhett Butler's People" (St. Martin's Press, $27.95), a new "Gone With the Wind"-based novel. Written by Donald McCaig, it tells Rhett Butler's side of the age-old story.

The book will be unveiled today at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta, two days before it hits bookshelves worldwide. Windies and mere casual fans are expected to flock to the museum to ring in the new "Gone With the Wind" sidekick.

Not a retelling, but rather a fresh look at Rhett, Scarlett and characters new and old, the novel has been under tight lock and key, but from what Stanford has heard and seen, it's going to be a classic. Although, perhaps not as huge as the original.

"I think this will shed light on Margaret Mitchell's epic work, and bring it to a younger generation," she said. "We have only heard positive feedback. When we look back on this 'Rhett Butler's People,' we'll see that it was one of the best books of our generation. "

Warren, for one, isn't the least bit upset that McCaig is adding on to the beloved epic. If anything, he encourages the new work.

"I think it will give us a new perspective on the story, and bring new light on who these people, characters, were," he said. "It will help ensure that the legacy never dies out. I mean, the most popular books in the world are the Bible, then 'Gone with the Wind.'"

From the looks of it, the "Gone With the Wind" fanfare is far from waning. The new novel aside, "Gone With the Wind"-themed, well, anything, offers a golden touch.

Amy Slotin, co-owner of Gainesville's Slotin Auction house, was putting together a huge sale of African folk art last year when she stumbled upon a box of Margaret Mitchell memorabilia she had acquired - and forgotten about.

"Honestly, I didn't know what to do with all this stuff," she said. "We had received it when the Atlanta Museum shut down, and I didn't even think it would sell."

She was wrong.

When the box went up on eBay, buried among African folk art pieces, the response was mindblowing. The collection of "Gone With the Wind"-related items - including a footstool Mitchell was photographed sitting on and a few ticket stubs and photographs - received thousands of hits from all across the world. It sold to an anonymous bidder for $130,000.

"It was crazy, wild," she said. "You really had to dig to find it, and people sure did dig. I'd never expected that. It was just a bunch of mishmash. But anything related to 'Gone With the Wind,' it's still just huge."

Auctioneer Larry Troutman received the same showing of fans when he held an estate sale last year for actor Fred Crane, who played Brent Tarleton in "Gone With the Wind." More than 550 people came to the 91⁄2-hour sale, where some 1,100 items brought in close to $1 million.

"It was call sheets and stuff from the movie set, and a signed copy of the novel. It was just huge," Troutman said.

Southerners aren't the only ones caught up in the "Gone With the Wind" sweep, either. There are Windies spread throughout the world, from Atlanta to Asia. Every year, the Margaret Mitchell Museum averages about 43,000 patrons from around the world. And at tonight's book launch and author shindig, Stanford is expecting guests from coast to coast. A few tickets have even been sold to folks in Germany, she said.

"This is an international phenomenon," Stanford said. "A lot of our museum guests are from Japan, where the novel is very popular. The themes of overcoming struggles and love and ongoing strength, these are enduring themes. They cross nationalities and ages and language barriers."

When Mitchell penned the work in her tiny Atlanta apartment, affectionately referred to as "The Dump," she had no idea the impact her story would have on the world, Stanford said. That untainted devotion to creating solid characters and relatable plotlines largely contributes to the story's unrestricted appeal.

"At first, she named Scarlett Pansy, because it was a strong, hardy flower. But Rhett and Pansy just doesn't have the same ring to it. Had she stuck with the name Pansy, who knows if the novel would have been such a huge success?" Stanford said. "She had no idea the huge frenzy she was creating. But she created it, and the world completely changed because of that."

SideBar: If you go

' What: "Rhett Butler's People" book launch party

' When: 6 to 9 p.m. today

' Where: The Margaret Mitchell House and Museum, 990 Peachtree St., Atlanta

' Cost: $60, which includes an advance copy of the book

' Info: "Rhett Butler's People" author Donald McCaig will be on-hand to sign books. Call 770-578-3502 or visit www.gwtw.org.