Title: Rhett Butler’s People
Author: Donald McCaig
Genre: Historical fiction
Publication Date: 2007
Purchase Price: $8.99 (paperback)
Misc. Info.: A fully authorized “sequel” to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind
After writing what some have called “the best Civil War novel ever written,” Donald McCaig was handpicked by the Margaret Mitchell estate to write a companion novel to the wildly popular (and controversial) Gone With the Wind. Okay, actually he was pick number three, but we won’t hold that against him.
Rhett Butler’s People is not only a retelling of the same story from Rhett’s perspective, but from others’ as well: Melanie Wilkes and Belle Watling are featured heavily, as are Belle’s son, father, and cousins. As the title suggests, the reader learns much more about Rhett’s childhood, his family and personal experiences. McCaig chooses not to accept a 1991 sequel, Scarlett (Alexandra Ripley), into the canon. So the reader starts off right where Gone With the Wind leaves off. And unlike Scarlett, McCaig’s novel only goes a little further into the future than Mitchell’s. So those readers who have always wondered what happens after Rhett’s final “I don’t give a damn,” now’s your chance to learn.
There’s been a trend in recent years that leads authors to write an already-written story from different characters’ perspectives. This is a huge trend with Jane Austen, especially Pride and Prejudice. There are hundreds of sequels, prequels, and spinoffs.
A book often frustrates me when I can’t understand why a character behaves a certain way. Authors are not required to (and very often don’t) explain every character’s thoughts, so sometimes the reader is left in the dark. Books like McCaig’s give the reader a glimpse of what others are thinking, and sometimes that helps round out the world of the story.
But as I’ve mentioned before, it’s never that great a sign when a book that’s been out for three years is already selling paperbacks for less than ten dollars. The typical book (other than romance novels or secondhands) are never very cheap; to draw a comparison, Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is for sale at Barnes and Noble for almost thirteen dollars in paperback, and over twenty dollars for hardback. But perhaps it’s not fair to compare this novel to a classic. Let’s try Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, released in 2003: a paperback still goes for more than ten dollars.
And it’s not that Rhett Butler’s People is a bad book. It’s just very…flat, especially in comparison to Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel. The Civil War has never been a huge area of interest to me, and it’s not like I haven’t read Gone With the Wind (and seen the movie). Therefore there were lots of times when I just couldn’t get into the narrative; I skimmed a lot of paragraphs that began with “At the Battle of [insert battle name here]…” as well as a bunch of stuff that involved Scarlett. She’s never been my favorite character, and McCaig often paints a very negative picture of her through Rhett’s eyes.
After reading the book’s summary, I was expecting to read an exact copy of Gone With the Wind, except from Rhett’s perspective. I was pleasantly surprised to see bits and pieces of the story from Melanie Wilkes’ perspective. In Mitchell’s novel she is portrayed as almost saccharine-sweet, only showing some real temerity toward the end; in this novel she knows exactly what is going on between Ashley (her husband) and Scarlett. Despite feeling betrayed by both parties, she is strong enough to pretend it never happened–thus proving herself more of a lady than Scarlett can ever hope to be.
There’s a reason I don’t like war novels–there’s just so much pain. War wounds, broken limbs, shattered skulls, lost love. And this novel is particularly harsh because it also involves slave markets, lynchings, burnings, and hangings. I know it kind of makes me a book snob, disliking books that detail unpleasantries, but I prefer to leave it to others to read grim and gory details.
Scarlett has never been one of my favorite characters. At least with this novel coming from others’ perspectives it’s not to bad; but with Mitchell’s novel, the reader is absolutely swimming in Scarlett’s possessiveness, jealousy, scheming, and trickery. It’s not until the end (of Mitchell’s or McCaig’s) that I can begin to tolerate Scarlett. Her changes are twofold: war tends to knock the immaturity out of people, and Miss O’Hara has to grow up mighty quick. It is up to her to keep Tara and her family in one piece. The second effecter of her change is Rhett: he’s her “match,” the only other person (man or woman) with enough wit and temper to stand being near her.
But even Scarlett’s considerable growth throughout Rhett Butler’s People is not enough to redeem her in my eyes. Not only that, but I find it completely frustrating that Ashley loses his wife, Suellen loses her husband, and Rosemary loses two husbands and a daughter, and Scarlett still ends up with Rhett–even though she’s been nothing but petty, spoiled, and scheming since page one! I know life isn’t fair, but doesn’t that give authors more of a reason to make their novels so?
Though by no means a totally awesome, Pulitzer-worthy novel, Rhett Butler’s People is definitely a great quick read (despite its 498 pages). A paperback version is likely to be much more travel-friendly than my cumbersome hardback, and it would be a great plane, train, or car ride read.
“After three years studying with Cathecarte Puryear, Rhett could do calculus, read Latin (with a dictionary), knew the names of every English monarch since Alfred, the fancies of Charleston’s prettiest whores, and that a straight never, never beats a flush.” (p. 25)
” ‘Loving is a chancy thing, Taz. You risk your immortal soul.’ ” (p. 450)
What do you think of Civil War (or any war, for that matter) novels? Is Scarlett a conniving wretch, or merely a powerful woman who goes after who and what she wants?