I originally posted this review on Goodreads on July 27, 2010.
This review contains TONS of spoilers.
I first heard about Rhett Butler’s People while browsing through Goodreads, and I was very excited to find a copy. My excitement started to fizzle as soon as I began reading it.
McCaig spent 12 years writing this authorized prequel, but chose time and again to alter (or blatantly ignore) key events from not only Gone with the Wind, but also from the (also authorized) sequel Scarlett. Apparently, he felt that disregarding Scarlett was prefectly acceptable, stating that “I think [the trust:] wanted to expunge Scarlett – they were genuinely embarrassed by it,” says McCaig. Be that as it may, it was authorized and part of the Gone with the Wind canon, whether the Mitchell Estate (or fans) were pleased with it or not, and should not have been disregarded.
A great deal of the story is wasted fleshing out characters connected to Rhett that were previously unknown, that (in my opinion) readers were better off not knowing in the first place. His childhood friends were uninteresting for the most part, as were most details about his relationships with his parents. The one interesting new character was that of Tazewell Watling, son of the notorious Belle and (presumably, by all who know him) Rhett. I was bored senseless through it 99% of it, and hoped the story would be greatly improved once Scarlett, Ashley, Melanie, et al. entered the story. But that didn’t happen.
Instead, I was horrified to see beloved characters acting completely unlike themselves. Melanie eavesdropping and finding out Scarlett didn’t love Charles? Ashley actually loving Scarlett? Melanie always being aware of how Scarlett and Ashley felt about each other, and expecting them to have an affair, ultimately seducing her own husband for fear that their forced celibacy would send him into Scarlett’s arms? (Not to mention writing letters to Rosemary (Butler) Ravanel detailing how much she hated the celibacy. As if Melanie, proper Southern lady that she was, would ever put such a thing in writing? Pffft.) And since when is Ella epileptic?
The one thing that might have redeemed this atrocity somewhat would have been knowing Rhett’s private thoughts about Scarlett’s miscarriage and the death of Bonnie. The miscarriage was ignored as though it never happened. Bonnie’s death and the days following it were not told from Rhett’s perspective at all, but Melanie’s via a letter to Rosemary. Two of the most wrenching moments in Rhett’s married life, and we are given nothing from Rhett’s point of view? Both played a major role in his later decision to leave Scarlett, so why are we not privy to his feelings about these events?
The story continues past Gone with the Wind‘s ending. Rhett digs Melanie’s grave at Twelve Oaks (wasn’t that lost due to unpaid taxes?) and rides away immediately after. Scarlett and the children (including Beau) come home to Tara, along with Rosemary and her son Louis Valentine. (Ridiculous name.) Ashley sells the sawmills, and moves back to the ruins of Twelve Oaks. Vandals strike Tara. Scarlett’s home in Atlanta is burned by an arsonist. Even though they are paid well, field workers refuse to come to Tara, leaving the family to manage on their own, and once again Scarlett (who now has no money) must struggle to keep Tara and feed her family. (So much for “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again”, eh?) Finally, in desperation, Scarlett telegraphs Rhett and asks him to come home, and he does.
And where has Rhett been? London. Paris. Still not giving a damn about anything, much less himself, trying his best to forget Scarlett. Seeing the dashing Rhett Butler reduced to a lovelorn man who doesn’t care if he lives or dies is… well, disgusting. Yes, love hurts sometimes, and the pain of loss can be overwhelming. Still, it seems implausible that Rhett would allow himself to wallow in grief or self-pity for very long. I also find it unfathomable that he would come home the instant he is beckoned. Grieving and unhappy as he may be, you would think there would be a small spark of his former self intact that would not allow him to come running the moment Scarlett crooked her finger at him.
As Rhett makes his journey home, Belle Watling alerts Scarlett and Rosemary that her father (Isaiah, the former overseer of the Butler plantation) along with two others have been terrorizing Tara, hoping for Scarlett to send for Rhett so that Isaiah could kill him in retaliation for the death of his son, killed in a duel with Rhett (when Rhett was assumed to have fathered her baby). The women devise a plan to put an end to things and save Rhett from being killed, but Ashley and Will Benteen (Sue Ellen’s husband) intervene, resulting in the death of Will. (Ashley as the dashing hero out to save the day was humorous, to say the least.)
Rhett returns (safely), pays off all the debts, and things are looking bright for the couple. A much-wanted reconciliation is taking place between the couple, and a happy ending is in sight when a grand barbecue takes place at Tara.
But now we come to the final disgrace of this ill-written thing. Isaiah Watling returns and sets fire to Tara. If I hadn’t been so angry, I might have wept. Throughout everything Scarlett went through in her life, Tara was the one mainstay in her life, her one safe haven. I suppose it wasn’t enough to ruin the characters and have them do things they would never have done, or to completely ignore details both big and small in the writing of this shameful travesty. In order to put the final nail in the coffin of all the beloved aspects of Gone with the Wind, he had to get rid of Tara, too.
Rather than enhancing the classic novel, Rhett Butler’s People all but destroys all the things readers held dear about Mitchell’s wonderfully complex group of characters. Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett did not, in my opinion, keep these characters true to form throughout that novel either, but the majority of it was enjoyable to read, and the writing style much more in line with Mitchell’s than McCaig’s managed to be. I can’t understand why he was chosen to write this… I guess my first clue that this was to be a bad book should have been the fact that I’ve never heard of him.
What a terrible, terrible disappointment this book turned out to be.
Author: Donald McCaig
Title: Rhett Butler’s People
Published: August 26th, 2008 by St. Martin’s Paperbacks
About the Book
Fully authorized by the Margaret Mitchell estate, Rhett Butler’s People is the astonishing and long-awaited novel that parallels the Great American Novel, Gone With The Wind. Twelve years in the making, the publication of Rhett Butler’s People marks a major and historic cultural event.
Through the storytelling mastery of award-winning writer Donald McCaig, the life and times of the dashing Rhett Butler unfolds. Through Rhett’s eyes we meet the people who shaped his larger than life personality as it sprang from Margaret Mitchell’s unforgettable pages: Langston Butler, Rhett’s unyielding father; Rosemary his steadfast sister; Tunis Bonneau, Rhett’s best friend and a onetime slave; Belle Watling, the woman for whom Rhett cared long before he met Scarlett O’Hara at Twelve Oaks Plantation, on the fateful eve of the Civil War.
Of course there is Scarlett. Katie Scarlett O’Hara, the headstrong, passionate woman whose life is inextricably entwined with Rhett’s: more like him than she cares to admit; more in love with him than she’ll ever know…
Brought to vivid and authentic life by the hand of a master, Rhett Butler’s People fulfills the dreams of those whose imaginations have been indelibly marked by Gone With The Wind.
About the Author
Donald McCaig is the award-winning author of Jacob’s Ladder designated “the best civil war novel ever written” by The Virginia Quarterly. People magazine raved “Think Gone With the Wind, think Cold Mountain.” It won the Michael Sharra Award for Civil War Fiction and the Library of Virginia Award for Fiction.
Author photo and bio via Goodreads.