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.