Book Review: “Rhett Butler’s People”

Let me preface this by saying that my normal rating system doesn’t really apply here. I am a huge fan of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind,” both book and movie, as well as a fan of the sequel, “Scarlett,” by Alexandra Ripley (book only, the miniseries was awful!), so I knew that I would be buying the second prequel/sequel (“Rhett Butler’s People” by Donald McCaig) no matter what. So, the day it came out, I packed up the children and went to Borders, with my Borders Rewards coupon in hand (40% off! woo hoo!) and bought the book for better or for worse. So, when I give it a rating, just ignore the parts about whether or not I’d buy it, get it from the library again, etc., because no matter the actual content, I knew I needed the book to sit on my shelf with “Gone with the Wind” and “Scarlett.”

Anyway, it’s obviously been a while since I read it. I think it came out last November-ish, and I read it that week, so my memory is a little fuzzy on specifics, but I remember enough of it to know what I didn’t like about it.

The idea for this book was really cool–a look at a young Rhett Butler pre-“Gone with the Wind,” and then a continuation of his story through the same time period occupied by “Gone with the Wind.” It was also written by someone who is supposed to be an excellent historical, Civil War era author (although I had not previously read anything by him–I’m more of a John Jakes, “North and South” trilogy kind of gal), so I was very excited to get started.

On it’s own, I suppose this would be a pretty good book. It’s an interesting story, and I liked reading more about one man’s view of Rhett Butler’s history, motivations, etc. I had two problems with the book, however, and the first one is a biggie. I can’t stand how there was no continuity between this book and “Scarlett.” Now, I understand that “Scarlett” wasn’t written by Mitchell, and I know a lot of people are highly critical of the first sequel to “Gone with the Wind.” That being said, the estate of Mitchell did approve both books, and I just don’t get why they would allow two books to stand as “sequels” to a classic like “Gone with the Wind” when they don’t share many, if any, commonalities.

Both books are good at staying true to “Gone with the Wind,” but anything that is not specifically mentioned in that book is apparently fair game. Names of extended family members are different between Scarlett and Rhett Butler’s People, and some family member exist only in one book or the other (particularly Rhett’s siblings). It is my opinion that because “Scarlett” was written first, McCaig should have been held to upholding the characters that were introduced in that story (it could be that I am just biased because I liked “Scarlett” almost as much as the original, and felt that Ripley really understood the characters, and wrote a sequel in keeping with how the characters would actually act). The estate should have been firm in that there must be continuity between the two stories; otherwise, there is no way they can both stand as sequels.

The other thing that really bothered me was McCaig’s portrayal of Melanie Wilkes. In his book, she was more cynical–she was suspicious of Scarlett; aware of her and Ashley’s relationship, and almost devious in her endeavors to keep her sister-in-law and husband apart. This is nothing like the Melanie we come to know and love in “Gone with the Wind”: a woman who could not even conceive of dishonor in the people she loved, a woman who had been so sheltered that she was unaware of evil in her world. McCaig did a disservice to the original by writing such a poor character portrayal, and of a main character no less!

This book gets three stars from me, even though I did buy it. It was an OK story; I had no problem finishing it. Had it been the same book, about different characters, it might have even gotten a four star rating. I enjoyed the setting, and I do love Civil War era anything, so in that respect, it was a good book for me. As it is, I’m guessing I’m not going to add it to my traditional summer reading rotation, where I read “Scarlett” and “Gone with the Wind” every year (and in that order for some odd reason–what can I say? I’m weird that way!), but it does look nice on the shelf next to the other two books. And who knows, in a few years, I may come back to it and give it another chance.