Rhett Butler’s People by Donald Craig
St. Martin’s Press, 1st edition, 2007
Genre: historical fiction, romance, parallel novel, cashing in, total crap
Synopsis & Review: I’m not going to explain the entire plot of Gone with the Wind here (which is one of my all-time favorite books, and with good reason), but this is a prequel/sequel/parallel novel to that. It starts during Rhett Butler’s childhood, and ends slightly after Gone with the Wind does. And it’s a travesty. Here is the jacket copy:
Rhett Butler’s People is the long-awaited novel based on the great American novel Gone With the Wind. Twelve years in the making, Rhett Butler’s People marks a major and historic cultural event for millions of Gone With the Wind readers, complementing and adding new dimensions to its timeless story.
Through the storytelling mastery of award-winning writer Donald McCaig, the life and times of the enigmatic Rhett Butler unfold. Meet Rhett as a boy, a free spirit who loved the marshes and tidewaters of the Low Country, and learn of the ruthlessness of his father, whose desire for control resulted in unspeakable tragedy. Through Rhett’s eyes, you will also meet the people who shaped him in other ways: the Overseer’s daughter, Belle Watling; Rhett’s brave and determined sister, Rosemary; Tunis Bonneau, the son of freed slaves — Rhett’s childhood friend who understood him like no one else; Jack Ravanel, whose name became inextricably linked to heartbreak.
And then, of course, there is Scarlett. Katie Scarlett O’Hara, the headstrong, passionate woman whose life is entwined with Rhett’s: more like him than she cares to admit, more in love with him than she’ll ever know.
Rhett Butler’s People, brought to vivid and authentic life by the hand of a master, fulfills the dreams of those whose imaginations have been indelibly marked by Gone With the Wind.
MY ASS. One major tip-off that something will suck: The protagonist repeatedly refers to themselves in laughable terms. In the case of McCraig’s Rhett Butler, it’s the term “renegade.” As in, “I’m a renegade.” Can anyone say that with a straight face? Could anyone ever?
And that, folks, is exactly the tone of the novel. But it’s not supposed to be funny.
That’s pretty much as good as Rhett Butler’s People gets (which is great for PeeWee Herman/Paul Reubens, boy wonder/genius, but terrible for this novel).You can’t just keeping saying “I’m a renegade” over and over–that doesn’t make you one. You have to SHOW us Rhett being a rakehell hottie-boombalottie in order for us to believe it, you cannot simply TELL us that. It’s that maxim like, Fiction Writing 101?
The major problem (and a whopper of a problem at that!) is that McCaig’s Rhett and Scarlett bear very little resemblance to Mitchell’s Rhett and Scarlett, a problem replicated with virtually every character carried over from GwtW. Aside from a few token scenes in which some dialog is re-written word-for-word, McCaig has the characters acting, well, out of character. Rhett is particular is insipid and moony as all get out, a simpering, lovesick sap busting out with inane drivel like, “Scarlett. Sunshine, hope and everything he ever wanted.” Gag me with a spoon. The Rhett of GwtW was dashing, enigmatic, charming, sardonic, and more than a little reprehensible. Rather than simply a misunderstood anti-hero, Rhett was a reprobate–but oh, what a reprobate! Enter McCaig’s Rhett, who’s major faults are not habits of lying, cheating at cards, using and abusing men and women alike, but rather that he is too sensitive, particularly to the plight of the underclasses. McCaig carefully rewrites Rhett’s history, whitewashing it and excising the most difficult incidents: the Charleston girl he dishonored is explained away (he never touched her!); instead of killing a “darky who had insulted a white woman,” Rhett saves his BFF from a lynching with a mercy-killing; even the scenes in which he threatens Scarlett with violence and insults with the oh-so-cold “Cheer up. Maybe you’ll have a miscarriage” line are glossed over. Instead, Rhett mopes when Scarlett rejects him, fretting endlessly in a manner that brings home the fact that a parallel novel reflects the era in which it was written more than it sheds light on the original work.
In making Rhett such a bland and virtuous character, McCaig creates a new puzzle: Just why was he so disliked by polite society? He often tells us that Rhett is disliked as he was in GwtW, but never shows it. McCaig’s Rhett seems at every turn to be working for the betterment of people, and rarely makes any of the barbed remarks that so discomfited his audience in Mitchell’s novel–including Scarlett. This exfoliating of roughness also removes most of the interesting facets of Rhett’s early career, which McCaig moves through too swiftly for a novel ostensibly about Rhett’s early life. So intent on his ideas, McCaig effectively castrates Rhett, which is never so evident as in the poignant scene in the Atlanta jail, where Scarlett has gone in her velvet portiere finery to beg three hundred dollars off him in order to save Tara. In Mitchell’s novel, this is a powerful scene, with a desperate Scarlett and Rhett “straining at his own impotence,” even after he cruelly taunts her, having lashed out in his pain. Despite his desire to help her, he torments her, something McCaig’s Rhett cannot do, too busy whining over her “faithlessness” to consider whether she might try the same gambit with other men.
McCaig’s slant turns most of the sub-plots from GwtW on their heads; it often seems as though he did not actually read Mitchell’s novel, but instead based his own work upon the detailed outlines his wife prepared for him. Love scenes are particularly overwrought and affected, suggesting McCaig wrote those parts in the manner he imagines women want to read about love. They reek of insincerity:
Rhett’s eyes fell on a very young woman in a green dancing frock and his heart surged. “Dear God,” he whispered.
She wasn’t a great beauty: her chin was pointed and her jaw had too much strength. She was fashionably pale–ladies never exposed their skin to the brutal sun–and unusually animated. As Rhett watched, she touched a young buck’s arm both intimately and carelessly.
When the girl felt Rhett’s gaze she looked up. For one scorching second, her puzzled green eyes met his black eyes before she tossed her head dismissively and resumed her flirtation.
Forgotten the looming War. Forgotten the devastation he expected. Hope welled up in Rhett Butler like a healing spring. “My God.” Rhett moistened dry lips. “She’s just like me!”
His heart slowed. He looked away, smiling at himself. It had been a long time since he’d made a fool of himself over a woman.
lolwut? What the hell just happened there? I won’t even start in on Melanie and Ashley. And what he did to Scarlett!!1! (Okay, he has her fetching coffee and playing with her children. Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler, serving refreshments and playing mommy. NUH-UH.) Even Belle Watling gets the sanitizing treatment, now a long-time associate of Rhett’s, desperately trying to be a respectable woman, and no longer the “good sort” of whore that Mitchell’s Rhett casually dismisses. I could go on for hours, comparing and contrasting, but it’s leaving a sick taste in my mouth.
To be fair, however, there are parts of Rhett Butler’s People that aren’t so bad, namely the ones that have nothing whatsoever to do with GwtW. When not writing about Rhett, Scarlett, or anything to do with GwtW, McCaig relaxes and his prose begins to flow, losing the stilted, flowery style that plagues the GwtW sections. The characters made up of whole cloth, or whom we know so little of that they may as well have been (such as Rosemary Butler) seem realistic and interesting, and he writes skillfully about both the War and the Reconstruction. McCaig may be a decent write of his own style of fiction, but his contempt for the subject matter seeps into too much of Rhett Butler’s People, making the incompetence with which he fumbles it so much the worse.
I absolutely do not recommend this to any human being. I swear, reading this book is like getting smacked in the back of the head with a shovel wrapped in a dishtowel.
Read instead: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall
Rhett said, “I love these marshes. Hell, I never wanted to be a rice planter. Langston would go on about rice varieties or negro management and I’d not hear a word for dreaming about the river.” Eyes sparkling, he leaned toward his friend, “I’d drift through the fog, steering with an oar. One morning, I surprised a loggerhead sliding down an otter slide—sliding for the pure joy of it. John, have you ever seen a loggerhead turtle smile?
“I don’t know how many times I tried to slip past a sleeping anhinga without waking her. But that snaky head would pop from beneath her wing, sharp-eyed, not groggy in the least, and quick as that”—Rhett snapped his fingers—”she’d dive. Marsh hens weren’t near as wary. Many’s a time I’d drift ’round a bend and hundreds of ’em would explode into flight. Can you imagine flying through fog like this?”
“You have too much imagination,” Rhett’s friend said.
“And I’ve often wondered, John, why you are so cautious. For what great purpose are you reserving yourself?”
When John Haynes rubbed his spectacles with a damp handkerchief, he smeared them. “On some other day, I’d be flattered by your concern.”
“Oh hell, John, I’m sorry. Fast nerves. Is our powder dry?”
Haynes touched the glossy mahogany box cradled in his lap. “I stoppered it myself.”
“Hear the whippoorwill?”
The rapid pounding of the horses’ hooves, the squeak of harness leather, Hercules crying, “Pick ’em up, you rascals, pick ’em up,” the three-note song of the whippoorwill. Whippoorwill—hadn’t John heard something about Shad Watling and a whippoorwill?
“I’ve had a good life,” Rhett Butler said.
Since John Haynes believed his friend’s life had been a desperate shambles, he bit his tongue.
“Some good times, some good friends, my beloved little sister, Rosemary…”
“What of Rosemary, Rhett? Without you, what will become of her?”
“You must not ask me that!” Rhett turned to the blank black window. “For God’s sake. If you were in my place, what would you do?”
The words in sturdy John Haynes’s mind were, I would not be in your place, but he couldn’t utter them, although they were as true as words have ever been.
Rhett’s thick black hair was swept back off his forehead; his frock coat was lined with red silk jacquard, and the hat on the seat beside him was beaver fur. John’s friend was as vital as any man John had ever known, as alive as wild creatures can be. Shot dead, Rhett Butler would be as emptied out as a swamp-lion pelt hung up on the fence of the Charleston market.
Rhett said, “I am disgraced already. Whatever happens, I can’t be worse disgraced.” His sudden grin flashed. “Won’t this give the biddies something to gossip about?”
“You’ve managed that a time or two.”
“I have. By God, I’ve given respectable folk a satisfying tut-tut. Who has served Charleston’s finger pointers better than I? Why, John, I have become the Bogeyman.” He intoned solemnly, ” ‘Child, if you persist in your wicked ways, you’ll end up just like Rhett Butler!’ “
10 December – 12 December