The Wicked of the South

Recently, while at Pic-N-Save, my wife picked up a copy of “Rhett Butler’s People“, the authorized sequel to “Gone With The Wind“. This prompted me to add “Gone With The Wind” (GWTW) to my reading queue, and after that, “Rhett Butler’s People“. I finished “Rhett Butler’s People” (RBP) yesterday, and I feel compelled to share a few observations.

I’ll start my noting that I hadn’t read GWTW before, although I had seen the movie numerous times. I was pleasently surprised. The movie turned out to be relatively close to the book (a surprise given how they hack things up these days). I’m not sure the movie emphasized Scarlett’s sisters or first two children as much, but my memory could be fault. GWTW was a good read, and I can easly see why it was one of the most popular novels in its day. It had incredible complexity, deeply tracked and plotted characters that connected with each other, interesting historical observations, and lots of different motivations. Although some might view it as a romance novel (ala Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona), I would put it more in the historical novel vein. I think it is unappreciated today, and probably could do with more depth and study (certainly it would be better than the numerous times Catcher in the Rye is forced on kids).

RBP tells the story of Rhett Butler, from his youth until well past that famous last scene of GWTW. Reading the book, I couldn’t help think of the parallels with Wicked, Gregory Maguire’s telling of the backstory of the Wicked Witch of the West, including that unfortunate encounter with that brat from Kansas. I mention this because RBP also took incidents and characters (especially little ones) from the base story (in Wicked’s case, The Wizard of Oz), and attempted to weave them into a coherent backstory. Wicked was perhaps more successful in this, because there was so little about the Witch in the original book. RBP had a harder task because there is just so much in the GWTW story. I’d say that McCraig was about 85% successful in that effort: there are some incidents he doesn’t mention, and there are points where I think he might have his chronology wrong. There are some who dispute his characterizations of some of the individuals. Of course, these problems set off the reviewers of the story who insisted on 100% fidelity to the original. I can see that point of view, but I’m willing to accept a few minor discrepancies. [If you hadn’t guessed, I’m not a fan fiction person, nor am I a slavish fan to any particular story].

The story also suffered from what I will call sequelitis. This is when the sequel attempts to tell the same story as the original. It’s really common in the few sequels that have been attempted in the theatre (and often in them movies, as opposed to “Part 2”). In the case of RBP, the entire story of Butler’s sister, Rosemary, seems in many ways to be a parallel to Scarlett’s story—in love with one man, but marrying another, and with a very plain best friend who marries the man she loved. That story plays out differently than Scarlett’s, but the parallels are just disturbing (and to me, an indication of taking an easy writers out).

Does this mean that RBP was bad. No, I’m not as down on it as some of the reviewers on Amazon, but I think it was a pleasant read—certainly appropriate for two days over Memorial Day, in preparation for a trip to the South and many of the locales of GWTW (in particular, New Orleans and Atlanta). I thought the story flowed well, and McCraig is certainly an adequate writer. For a $3 read, it wasn’t bad (and the copy of GWTW was even cheaper—a $1.75 paperback from 1970). It is certainly better than the unauthorized sequel by Alexandra Ripley, “Scarlett“, which I understand had Scarlett going off to Ireland after Rhett left. That got scathing reviews.

Now it’s off to read another book about Civil War days: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. That should get me ready to drive through Illinois!