Rhett Butler's People
Like no other book, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind is inexorably bound up with my Southern girlhood. I discovered it when I was 8 or 9 on my grandmother’s bookshelf and, over the years, spent many an hour lost in its pages. But my professor father — who’d gone to some pains to teach his children about the Civil War and its ramifications — dismissed the novel as frippery, a soap opera.
A soap opera? You bet. But what a soap opera, one of the finest ever written, revolving around a spunky, black-haired, green-eyed girl and her love for the wrong man, set against the fiery backdrop of the Civil War. When the first GWTW sequel, Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett, came out in 1991, I was indignant. Was nothing sacred? Oddly, when I heard about Donald McCaig’s sequel, Rhett Butler’s People, some 12 years in the writing, I was curious. McCaig, unlike Ripley, has a reputation as a real writer, with two acclaimed Civil War novels to his name.
Just as Ripley’s book traced Scarlett’s life, McCaig’s explores Rhett’s. The early chapters function as a prequel, a description of Rhett’s childhood as the wild son of a low-country rice planter. McCaig fleshes out Rhett’s teens and 20s, inventing the details that transformed him into Mitchell’s famous reprobate and blackguard. Young Rhett bears biographical similarities to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. McCaig, unlike Ripley once again, knows his facts; his historical depictions are largely correct (and he acknowledges in an afterword where he took liberties). He also corrects Mitchell’s romanticized view of the war and reconstruction — his South is one of loss and ruin.
But he strays into all kinds of problems when his story line leaps, timewise, past GWTW‘s, to ludicrous effect. Then there are the characters: Though he’s able to effect a credible Rhett (and he’s pretty dead-on with Suellen Benteen, one of Scarlett’s sisters, as well as with her simpering aunt Pittypat), he’s not much good at Mammy, Melanie, or even Scarlett. Do I think, in a million years, that Scarlett would’ve kissed a drowsy Rhett and said, ”I’d better see to the children. There’ll be coffee when you come down”? Fat chance. Or that she would have confided to Rhett’s sister, ”I feel like a maiden again…. I pray life will be good to me!” (I actually laughed out loud at that one.) McCaig’s a decent writer, and the plot is better than middling. But he’s missed the point about Scarlett — nothing affected her indomitable spirit and innate selfishness. And since everything must come back to her in the end — as it does even in McCaig’s novel — a docile, vapid Scarlett is worse than no Scarlett at all. C+