by Donald McCaig
512 pages, St. Martin’s Press
Review by Anthony Barker
Is it strictly necessary to have read Gone With the Wind in order to review an “authorized” novel based thereon? I hope not, for like one of those guys testifying at the Watergate hearings, “I have no specific recollection of having done so.” Nor do I specifically recall not reading it. I have vivid impressions of the story, and I recall that Rhett ultimately didn’t give a damn, but they almost certainly weren’t from reading the book. The movie has become the book. Vivien Leigh will always be Scarlett, and Rhett will always look like Oil Can Harry. There’s nothing anybody can do about it.
Donald McCaig is a skilled novelist with a thorough knowledge of the Civil War and Reconstruction. I was reading his novel, Canaan, (wherein an interesting collection of characters were being moved by subtle increments toward the disaster at Little Big Horn) when I set it aside, temporarily, in order to see how he worked within the constraints of Ms. Mitchell’s “authorized version” of the Civil War—a story so iconic that angels should fear to tread upon it.
For the most part I liked Rhett Butler’s People—and I believe I liked it better than Gone With the Wind. Maybe it’s because RBP is a masculine book. It isn’t so much a difference in the amount of swash or buckle, but in point of view. For example, Scarlett appears in her green velvet gown, but the dress is not symbolic of her determination, renewal and growth. It’s just a dress—a passing glance at a good-looking woman dressed in green.
Rhett’s story is central, and we learn here (in case you wondered when you read GWtW) how his relationship to an over-bearing father, and various other events before and during the war, made him more realistic about the South’s prospects and more cynical about its “ideals”. He is portrayed, here, as dubious of the planter aristocracy, quite sympathetic to slaves and free blacks (one of whom becomes the captain of his blockade running steamship.) Happily, he has not been neutered so far as to conform to 2010 standards of political correctness. He breaks both Confederate and Federal laws, he duels, he mocks Scarlett, he laughs at Ashley, he runs blockades in an over-powered steam vessel (some good scenes there) he’s a war profiteer, spends time in jail, owns and operates a whore house, etc. He not only drinks to excess… he smokes. All jolly good fun. Perhaps his busy life makes his love for Scarlett seem somewhat unlikely, but it is plausibly portrayed as the obsession of an older, worldly man for a much younger, almost uneducated, country girl who shares some of his buccaneer qualities.
Did GWtW conclude with their marriage—or did the ‘happily ever after’ part follow from his not giving a damn? I don’t remember. Maybe I never knew. In McCaig’s version they marry. They have a little girl (a charmingly innocent reiteration of Scarlett.) Did Ms. Mitchell’s Rhett have a sister Rosemary? Again, I don’t remember—in McCaig’s version he does (the only woman he cares about until he meets Scarlett.) There are many such differences of detail and point of view, but the interactions of Scarlett and Rhett follow the scenarios of GWtW—as is to be expected in an “authorized” novel using somebody else’s characters.
Just as it is interesting to see how different poets handle a standard form, part of the interest of McCaig’s book lies in the fact that it is not a “sequel” but a separate novel, whose time-frame and characters overlap GWtW. It is perfectly readable on its own. Of course it would not have been written (or not in this particular form) if GWtW had never been written, but by focusing on salty Rhett instead of sugary Scarlett, a modern reader can stay up late and read big chunks, without suffering a hyperglycemic coma.
I’ll get back to Canaan next week.