Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Book Review: "Rhett Butler's People" by Donald McCaig

Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind is my favorite book of all time. Tolkien's work follows closely, but doesn't come close to my utter adoration for the story of Scarlett O'Hara. It was one of the first books I ever read in English, back when I was in the 8th grade, and I will always remember Mrs Carter fondly for giving it to me to read. I've read it at least once a year since then, have the movie memorized almost line for line, and it never gets old. To sum up how deep my love really is, I will confess that I have read the insultingly bad "sequel", Scarlett, by Alexandra Ripley, almost three times in my life.

Let's get this out of the way: Scarlett was an abomination. It was a treacly, poorly written follow-up that butchered continuity and completely changed the characters into laughably caricatures. Worse: it turned Scarlett O'Hara into a childish idiot. While I won't deny that the Scarlett of Gone With the Wind was a massive fool when it came to men, she was never dumb. Alexandra Ripley destroyed one of the greatest stories of all time.

And yet, I read it repeatedly. And made myself forget that it was supposed to be part of the same saga. It just happened to have characters named Scarlett and Rhett. Then it wasn't so bad. But oh, every time I finished reading I wished desperately that someone else had written the sequel. I wished it had never been written. How could you follow up on it? And yet, I wanted the story to continue. It's not the sort of story you want to end. I have always resented Alexandra Ripley.

All this is a very long-winded way to say that I was really terrified of reading Rhett Butler's People. Would it be another heartbreak? Would I be completely disappointed again?

The answer is both yes and no. It's complicated.

Let's start with the good. The absolute best thing about McCaig's book is that it completely obliterates any traces of Scarlett. For that alone it should have a statue built in its honor.

The story begins long before the events of Gone With the Wind, and it's all about the inimitable Rhett Butler. We learn who he was before he met Scarlett and was doomed. We meet his family; his tyrant father, his almost-invisible mother, and his sister Rosemary. We meet his friends; both aristocrats and former slaves. It follows Rhett as he goes to war, and those chapters are beautifully told.

It's a great story, finally helping us figure out what made Rhett the way he is. The story follows every character and their stories, and what's best, it connects everything beautifully to the events in Gone With the Wind. It's so exciting for a fangirl like me to recognize places and characters from the original story, and to see how they were connected to Scarlett and Rhett throughout their lives. Even better is to read passages between the two characters that were never in Gone With the Wind--it's sort of like a 'deleted scenes' version of the book at times.

It's a well-written, well-researched and thoroughly entertaining story, even when it isn't focusing on Rhett. In fact, I almost enjoyed reading the story of Rosemary more than that of Rhett. McCaig fleshes out the characters and makes every story interesting. Well, almost every story. And here's where we come to the negative parts of the review.

For all that this is the story of Rhett Butler, this isn't the Rhett Butler we all know. He's a softer, much nicer version of the romantic anti-hero from the original book. And that means he's a lot less fun. Rhett's scathing sense of humor is almost completely gone, replaced by someone who broods entirely too much and who needs to stop whining already. Scarlett is also transformed. Not dumbed down as Ripley did, but...when did Scarlett become so mature? This is where the fangirl in me yelled "SHE NEVER CALLED HIM CAPTAIN BUTLER WHAT THE HELL?" at the book. Because I yell at books. There were more than a few instances where Scarlett and Rhett acted so much against character that I almost put the book down, and it didn't matter how much I had been enjoying the rest of the story.

The problem, as much as I can figure it out, is in tone. Gone With the Wind was a flawlessly written book, full of excitement and passion, with characters and plot turns that kept you engrossed and excited. And most importantly, it had a sense of humor. It was emotional: funny, tragic, frustrating, exciting, etc. It had lighthearted moments followed by deep tragedies, and the chemistry and energy between the characters always kept things interesting.

McCaig's book, I think, takes itself too seriously. It's a very Serious book. Rhett's humor is gone, Scarlett's insane logic is gone, the excitement is gone. It's a book about war, and loss, and it's very good at that, but I would've liked something else. It's a good book, and a decent sequel, but it could've been so much better.

Maybe I'm not being fair. I know I have ridiculously high expectations. But in the end, I have to say I was pretty happy with the book, while also somewhat disappointed. I liked the start, loved some of the middle, and absolutely loved the ending, because it's the right one. It wasn't great when it was following Rhett and Scarlett for the reasons mentioned above, but it was great when it followed the other characters. It changed Rhett and Scarlett too much for my liking, but it was good to hear from them again. It does a beautiful job with continuity and follows up on things I'd been wanting to read about for ages. But it also made me outright angry in parts.

As I said, mixed feelings.

In the end, I'd recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of the original. Because, if nothing else, you will never, ever have to read Scarlett again. And for that alone, I'm eternally grateful to Donald McCaig.


Sin said...

Gone With the Wind falls into the category of books that i have to read again because i was way too young to appreciate it the first time. i did have this unexplainable urge to watch the movie a few months back, all million hours of it. vivien leigh looks gorgeous in it.

jamiepants said...

Okay, I'll read it. But I'll still keep reading/watching Scarlett. I'm insane that way. I forced a fondness for it that turned into an actual fondness over the years.

Peter Brown, Author said...

I agree that the Rhett in McCaig's book isn't much fun. Not insulting to the original Rhett, but not much fun

Who killed RHETT BUTLER? No one has written it until now: www.deathofrhett.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

I found this wonderful review while searching for discussion points about "Ruth's Journey."

"Scarlett" was awful. The first half had three purposes - to throw money at everyone and everything that was in the book but not the movie, to sprinkle historical facts to make it absolutely clear what year it was (and not doing a good job of it), and to show that Scarlett was definitely "never going to be hungry again." Man, did she eat!

The second half was bodice-ripping science fiction.

I was told in 1996 that the Mitchell Estate had selected another author, I'm just sorry it took so long for this one to come out.