Friday, December 7, 2007

Rhett Butler’s People , by Donald McCaig

OK, quick show of hands: Who thought this book would focus a *little* bit on Rhett and Scarlett’s relationship?

Yeah, me too. It doesn’t, though. So I’m trying to decide if that’s a bad thing.

It started off very promisingly. Although it’s been quite a few years since the last time I read GWTW, when I think about Rhett’s character, I think about a man who is waiting for his true love to grow up and understand what’s right in front of her. A man who never shows weakness and hides his fears and hurts behind sarcasm and wisecracks. A man who loves the beauty of the antebellum Southern aristocracy but sees its darknesses without illusion. But Mitchell never shows us what’s going on inside Rhett’s head except by way of what he says and does in front of her point-of-view characters, mainly (if not exclusively) Scarlett.

So a chance to understand the making of this man, if you will, this iconic Alpha Hero-- well, what lover of romance could resist? Rhett Butler’s People started off, not surprisingly, with the story of his youth, his family, his father, sister, and school friends. Belle Watling plays a surprisingly central and complex role. The book is structured roughly the same way as GWTW: Antebellum, The War, and The Reconstruction. So once we hit his first meeting with Scarlett at Twelve Oaks, I rather expected the story to twine more closely with hers and the original.

Instead, there was a bulk of material about Rhett’s sister Rosemary and a handful of other characters. Details about the blockade-running that Rhett was famous for, scenes from soldiers’ points of view and so on were interesting and well done. Well, OK, the title is not “Rhett Butler;” it’s “Rhett Butler’s People.” So I tried to keep an open mind. I bought the damn hardback; maybe I will read it again and try to think of Rosemary as the main character and not Rhett.

But try as I might, I couldn’t stop wanting this story to be a retelling of the 20th century’s greatest fictional romance from an alternate point of view. Sometimes it seemed like it was trying to be. Most of the time it didn’t. It suffers a lack of focus for the switching around between Rosemary, Rhett, Charlotte, Belle, Belle’s son, Melanie, and various others. Frequent point of view switches to minor characters further confused and diluted the power of this story. More unforgiveably, the relationship between Scarlett and Rhett is reduced to platitudes and a superficiality measured in microns. A snip from the scene where he first sees her:

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!”

Yuck. And totally out of character for both Micthell's Rhett and this one, I thought.

Did you believe Rhett when he said, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” ? Did you want to know what happens “tomorrow, at Tara”? I did. I do.

In this version of events, I will say that I liked the way Ashley’s story resolved. I liked the way Belle’s story resolved. I liked the story around Belle’s son, Taz, and I wouldn’t mind reading his story next.

Scarlett and Rhett though, got short shrift, IMO. The final section, a scant 4 or 5 chapters after Scarlett returns to Tara, contains a disappointingly artificial Big Final Conflict with one of Rhett’s old enemies and an almost entirely out-of-character Scarlett, leading to a wholly unbelievable ending (I’m dying to spoiler this but I’m restraining myself).

Overall, a story with good potential but ultimately disappointing. GWTW is an awfully tough act to follow though, so I give Donald McCaig kudos for the attempt, and for building Rhett’s biography.

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