Monthly Archives: February 2010


RHETT BUTLER’S PEOPLE / Donald McCaig. 2007 (495 pgs)

First Ten Pages = 2% of total book

RHETT BUTLER’S PEOPLE is the companion piece to GONE WITH THE WIND posted a couple of days ago.

First Sentence:  “One hour before sunrise, twelve years before the war, a closed carriage hurried through the Carolina Low Country. The Ashley River road was pitch-black except for the coach’s sidelights, and fog swirled through the open windows, moistening the passengers’ cheeks and the backs of their hands.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: Distant third person narrative voice. Past tense told chronologically with brief back-flashes to acquaint the reader with past events, ironically, the same as in GONE WITH THE WIND. In RHETT BUTLER’S PEOPLE the reader has the huge advantage, most likely, of having read Margaret Mitchell’s classic.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: A young Rhett Butler and his close friend, John Haynes, are hurrying through the marshes in a carriage. The reader, via too much dialogue, learns that the driver is the long time servant and accomplished horseman to the Butler family. The reader also learns that John Haynes is very agitated, while Rhett is his classic, carefree self. The book is set in past tense, and the first paragraphs often refer to a time even farther back in the past. It is confusing to trace the present tense of dialogue, the past tense of the narration, and the farther back past tense that the narrator refers to.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  After waxing poetic over the beauty of his rice fields in the predawn light, we learn that Rhett, and John as his second, are on their way to a duel with Belle Watley’s brother. You remember Belle from the movie, the Madame with a heart of gold who shields Rhett and whom Melanie visits in her gaudy carriage? Apparently the brother claims that Rhett has knocked up his sister and now both boys have honor to defend. It is rather like the beginning of GWTW where the two Tarleton twins have been kicked out of another college so all the Tarleton boys quit in fraternal unity. The main thing the reader learns, aside from the logistics of the cow pasture where the duel will take place, is that John Haynes is at wit’s end over the duel and Rhett is the already the calm, cool gentleman he will be thirteen years hence.

Language: Donald McCaig attempts to counteract Rhett’s casual tone with the thundering of horse’s hooves and jostling carriage straps and other such environmental effects. Much of the scene is told in dialogue, which lends an awkward sense of eavesdropping on unfamiliar people. There is something false in the language that mimics that of Mitchell’s work from seventy years earlier.

Character:  More focus is placed on the other characters than on Rhett, or perhaps the author intends for the reader to view Rhett via reflections from the others. The characters that successfully spring to life are those of Rhett and Belle, as they are well represented in GWTW. The others are difficult to visualize.

Setting: “We wouldn’t want to shoot a cow.” Rhett stretched. “My father would be furious if we shot one of his cows.” I suppose the irony of Rhett Butler standing in cow patties against a superior opponent is intended to be, well, ironic. I found myself confused by the opening action, as I found it difficult to visualize. In this case, too much is left to the reader’s imagination because not enough factual narrative informs the opening several pages. At about the sixth page, the story back tracks to an anecdote of his opponent shooting the head off of a whippoorwill at sixty paces, which gives the reader a clear understanding of the gravity of John Haynes point of view, not to mention Rhett Butler’s position as a dueling partner.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:  McCaig, on the twelfth page brings the opening duel to it’s climactic conclusion seconds after ending the scene. No, we don’t know the outcome of the duel, as the action ends at: “Shad Watling fired first, an explosion of white smoke at the muzzle when the hammer struck home.” This is immediately followed by: “Nine years earlier”. I’m not concerned about whether Rhett survives the duel. I’m more curious about how the author is going to fill up the remaining 480 pages. It seems to me that what makes Rhett Butler so fulfilling in GWTW is that he remains enigmatic.

Random Comments:  RHETT BUTLER’S PEOPLE has not been made into a movie.

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GONE WITH THE WIND / Margaret Mitchell

GONE WITH THE WIND / Margaret Mitchell. 1936 (1037 pgs)

First Ten Pages =  .96 % of total book

If only, if only, if only there could be a sound track to this blogisode. One does not have to have read GONE WITH THE WIND to feel they know it. Doesn’t familiarity of the myth and media of a classic familiarize one with the writing itself? (fade up music) Oh, fiddle de dee!

First Paragraph (truncated):  “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. …eyes… brows… lashes… magnolia-white skin…so prized by Southern women… bonnets, veils, mittens… against hot Georgia suns.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: Distant third person narrative voice. Past tense told chronologically with brief back-flashes to acquaint the reader with past events. In these first ten pages the narrator does not reveal any of the character’s thoughts, using dialogue, instead, to give the reader an inside view. The narrator offers a common point of view, such as, “everybody in the county knows…” to differentiate fact from gossip – as accurate as that might be. The narrator makes it very clear, very early, that none of the three characters introduced in the first ten pages, nor many of their neighbors up in the country of North Georgia “…trouble their heads with dull things in books”.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: Similarly to other “classic” (read older) popular stories, GONE WITH THE WIND spends the first paragraph describing Scarlett O’Hara (notice they are the first words of the story) and her unique features, the second describing what she is wearing and that she is a model of Southern women in general, and the third describing her two suitors as models of hot-headed, attractive, aristocratic Southern boys. Even without previous knowledge of the MGM film production the reader gathers a strong impression of the ‘look’ of these people and what they are wearing. The author takes her time with the narrative. Go figure, the story is over a thousand pages. There is plenty of time for set up. Even so, the pace in these three paragraphs is brisk and animated, which matches how the three are adolescent and warm-blooded.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  Whoo laws! Gossip! The BBQ tomorrow, who’s dating whom, who’s wearing what, and which parties will announce their engagement. Actually, in the course of the first ten pages, the announcement that Ashley Wilkes will marry Melanie Hamilton, is a show stopper. The boys carry on and yet Scarlett becomes subdued. The boys are too thick to realize their blunder and are sent off to face their mother, as they have just been expelled from their fourth university. Ms. Mitchell is adept at previewing the name of an upcoming character (Ashley Wilkes via his Pa, Charles Hamilton (Scarlett’s future husband) via his sister Melanie, and a guy named Rhett Butler via a cousin in Atlanta) and giving small amounts of character information. She is able to weave particular character traits into general aspects of character within the social order. She’ll mention Scarlett, and follow it with a paradigm of southern girlhood intended to cover many other girls who will emerge within the story. Conversely, Scarlett poses as a model for the opposite of the many of southern belles.

Language: Decorated. Sharp. Flowing. Descriptive. Picturesque. Blunt. Mitchell uses dialogue to slow down the general narrative description and to focus the reader’s attention on small details of the broad landscape. The size of the book alone informs the reader that there is a great deal of territory to traverse. Mitchell strikes a nice balance in the first pages between exposition and revelation.

Character:  In a way, the three prominent characters seem generically similar (the two boys are twins!) to the place they live. Born southern aristocrats, they seem to act the part, when in reality they are the part – a depiction of the real thing. The author sets them up, but gives them details that are at odds with their generic type. The boys are not well educated, and they are proud of it. Scarlett is not attractive, and yet the odd blending of her genetics create a woman one cannot take their eyes from.

Setting:  Very early in the story the name of their home, Tara, is used, but without the resonating meaning it will achieve in later pages. In this way the reader is slowly introduced to concepts of Georgia, War, Southern, Fort Sumpter, Cracker, Mr. Lincoln or Yankee before they have a larger and personal meaning. Setting is introduced, not so much as physical setting, but in terms of character driven narrative. Ms. Mitchell slowly disperses information as she sets up the story. Character comes first. Place follows. And yet, each character is a product of where they come from. GONE WITH THE WIND is another example of the author relies upon the reader’s imagination and prior knowledge to allow the setting to slowly emerge with relatively little description. There is some beautiful imagery on page eight: “It was a savagely red land, blood-colored after rains, brick dust in droughts, the best cotton land in the world.” Aside from the variations between wet and dry, blood and brick, there is an eerie sense of foreshadow in wet, blood and drought preceding the indication of plenty with the best cotton land in the world. Unfortunately, with the approach of the Civil War, all that will come crashing down.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:  I expect the story to unfold gradually. The year 1861 is prominently placed early in the story and is quickly followed by references that led up to the Civil War. Scarlett O’Hara, however, does not want to think about “the war” as it detracts from her favorite subject, Scarlett O’Hara.

Random Comments:  Time magazine included the novel in its 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. GONE WITH THE WIND sold for the unpresidented cost of $3 in 1936 and was an MGM classic, produced by David O. Selznick in 1939, starring Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable. They say Margaret Mitchell was not pleased with the film.


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THE CATCHER IN THE RYE / J.D. Salinger. 1951 (277 pgs)

First 10 Pages = 3.6% of total book

OK, here it is, the book that everyone else read in high school except me. I guess I grew up protected from phonies. With Salinger’s passing a couple of weeks ago, this seems particularly timely, in fact, I checked the book out of the library on the day the news became public. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, with its Picasso style Minotaur drawing of a frightened horse, has been sitting on top of the pile while I have been finding other things to do.

First Sentences:  “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  The first person steam of consciousness declaration of the main character is a presumptive teenage voice speaking of recent past events in a recent past tense. Events are relayed chronologically and, in the first ten pages, the action moves in a forward direction.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  The nameless narrator spends the first long paragraph disclosing the events he is willing to discuss, which have taken place “around last Christmas just before I got run down and had to come out here and take it easy.” Out here is somewhere near Hollywood, California where his brother is a “prostitute” / writer in the movie industry. As you read in the first paragraph, the narrator is sensitive to his parent’s privacy, and he is also conscious of social standing, money and the four thousand dollar Jaguar his brother drives. The information that follows refers to a short story the narrator’s brother wrote before he became a “Hollywood prostitute” about a secret goldfish that no one else is allowed to see because the little kid in the story bought it with his own money. What follows is: “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.”

The second paragraph begins the framed story of the narrator’s time around Christmas. It is the end of the school term and he has not been invited back to Pencey Prep in Agerstown, Pennsylvania, one of several prep schools he has been kicked out of.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  The first ten pages (and beyond) are a chronological recounting of his last day at Pencey Prep. He recounts a trip to New York that morning, as manager of the fencing team, losing the fencing equipment and gaining the disgust of the team. When he returns to Pencey, an important football game is in progress, which he ignores in order to visit his history teacher who is upset with the narrator’s failure. This scene continues beyond the tenth page and becomes an admonishment by his history teacher. One also learns that the narrator’s first name is Holden.  Aside from narrated events, the reader learns that Holden has been brought up to be respectful and that it is his nature to be so. In the scene with old Spencer, his teacher, he is deferential and polite, and yet his inner conversation runs on a different track indicating that Holden is a complicated young man; a dispiriting combination of bright and lazy. The action is slow and Holden is anxious to leave as soon as the conversation turns peremptory.

Language: Holden is very aware of social standing and is respectful to his elderly teacher, but the language of his thoughts is casual, sloppy and with a sense of know it all bravado. “I don’t much like to see old guys in their pajamas and bathrobes anyway. Their bumpy old chests are always showing. And their legs… “Hello, sir,” I said. “I got your note. Thanks a lot.” He’d written me this note asking me to stop by and say good-by before vacation started, on account of I wasn’t coming back.”

Character:  Holden is self deprecating and unsure of himself which he masks with outward respect and inward bravado. As he recounts the events of his last days at Pencey, he gives the reader an inside story that serves as running commentary of the thoughts that pass through his mind. Most of his thoughts are derogatory toward others, seemingly in an attempt to build himself up in his own mind.

Setting:  In the first paragraph, the reader is not given any indication of the place where Holden is resting in California. It is easy to forget the first paragraph once the action turns to Pencey Prep school. It seems that Holden will return to the frame of the current story  – in California – but that he is intentionally withholding that information out of shame. He is very descriptive about the school, other characters and his perspective in the past segments

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:  I suspect that THE CATCHER IN THE RYE will build in tempo and tension as events progress. Holden Caulfield frankly tells the reader upon entering the story that he is “resting,” a coded term for the aftermath of a breakdown. Why he is in California when the story begins in Pennsylvania is a mystery that may or may not be revealed, as Holden seems to be a rather unreliable narrator. How he attempts to right himself or how he sinks, remains to be seen.

Random Comments: Like MRS. DALLOWAY (also reviewed on this site) and other stream of consciousness stories, the reader is kept at arms distance from events, even though Holden is telling the story in an accessible first person.

The copyright dates in the book say 1945 and yet the book came out in 1951.

It is interesting to me that this book emerged into public consciousness in the years WW2 service men re-assimilated into post war society.

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