'Gone' but Not Forgotten
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
RHETT BUTLER'S PEOPLE
By Donald McCaig
St. Martin's. 500 pp. $27.95
The dust jacket gives "Rhett Butler's People" a subtitle: "The Authorized Novel Based on Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind." Frankly, my dear, should we give a damn? After all, Alexandra Ripley's 1991 blockbuster "Scarlett" was "authorized," too. Do we need another version, brought out in an extraordinary 1.2 million press run?
Perhaps. "Rhett Butler's People" is neither prequel nor sequel. Instead, it is a "parallel novel" that draws on another work of fiction. Think "Wide Sargasso Sea," by Jean Rhys ("Jane Eyre"), or "March," by Geraldine Brooks ("Little Women"). Like Alice Randall's "The Wind Done Gone" (2001), Donald McCaig's novel parallels "Gone With the Wind." But while the new novel is officially approved, let's not be hasty in assuming it will meet the approval of readers. Being hasty is most un-Southern, and McCaig's book is Southern through and through, with references to cornbread and side meat, tight stays and tighter trousers, and people with names like Mose and Taz.
First, consider Rhett, that consummate man's man whose amended catchphrase is part of our cultural lexicon (for the record, his words in the book were "My dear, I don't give a damn"). McCaig's Rhett is sympathetic: stubborn and withholding, yet loyal and discreet -- particularly in his poignant relationship with notorious madam Belle Watling. He breaks rules and defies boundaries but upholds standards and creates community, especially after the war, when his kindness to comrades helps soothe their bruised honor.
But McCaig's well-rounded portrait of Rhett serves only to underscore his failure with Scarlett O'Hara, who in his hands is just a shallow and manipulative belle. She's willing to hoe until her hands are callused, but we never truly understand her attachment to the old ways. McCaig may want to present Scarlett as perpetual child to Rhett's preternatural adult, but the result is that the book feels unbalanced.
The worst thing about this imbalance is that it overshadows one of the richest additions McCaig has made: the character of Rosemary, Rhett's beloved younger sister. Rosemary Butler functions more subtly than the eternal anti-Scarlett, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes. Rosemary's experiences (losing a child during the war, estrangement from her Confederate officer husband) are defined by sex and circumstance, but she is no less a fighter and survivor than Scarlett, the sister-in-law in whose home she winds up living, becoming one of "Tara's people" (as McCaig calls them toward the end).
Now, where are my manners? I said we weren't going to be hasty about recommending this book to "Gone With the Wind" readers, but I don't mean to keep you in suspense. Besides giving us new and interesting characters (Tazewell Watling, who may or may not be Rhett's son, is another), McCaig pays attention to detail, right down to the moss-green dress Scarlett wears when she sets her rooster-feathered cap for Rhett (remember those drapes?). He peppers the book with references to home cooking, corsetry and more -- even names of heirloom roses.
Some of the other Southern details aren't at all pretty. McCaig's first book, "Jacob's Ladder," dealt plainly with the issue of slavery, and here he attempts to show both sides of the plantation: Rhett's lifelong estrangement from his martinet father begins after Langston Butler canes a slave to death. Yet Tara's former slaves not only stay with the land, they become part of the family. The scenes of outrages perpetrated by the Klan are painfully honest, illustrating how men who shine on the fields of battle can become cruel and embittered, all the while believing they are in the right.
What isn't always quite as direct is McCaig's prose, and the best illustration of what goes wrong there comes in an early chapter, "The Merry Widow," in which McCaig goes a bit purplish as he describes Scarlett sighting Rhett shortly after her first husband, Charles Hamilton, has been killed:
"At Twelve Oaks, That Man had overheard her pleading to Ashley, begging Ashley to love her as she loved him, her pleas rejected by the finest, noblest . . .
"Now That Man dared to put a finger to his lips, as if he knew her intimate thoughts but vowed to keep her secret."
This is so over the top, yet at the end of the next chapter ("Some Lovers") and with a much lighter touch, McCaig describes another encounter between a male and female, when Rosemary and her daughter Meg are watching a vixen and a fox:
" 'Is he her husband, Uncle Rhett?'
" 'He wants to be,' her mother said. 'See, Meg, he's courting.'
"The child knelt below the rail to see better. 'Does she like him, too?'
" 'She's pretending she doesn't know he's alive,' her uncle Rhett said."
McCaig should have injected more of such lightness into his story. When he isn't worried about That Novel, he writes with confidence. Likewise, "Rhett Butler's People" reads best when considered on its own merits, without regard to its monumental predecessor, to which it owes thanks but not allegiance.