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Correcting Margaret Mitchell
on December 30, 2007
I picked up this book with an open mind. I enjoy fanfiction and new takes on old favorites and never believe that any work is sacrosanct. GWTW from Rhett Butler's POV sounded fascinating, but that's not what this book is. It's not a retelling. It's not a sequel. It's not even--as I first thought--an attempt to whitewash the character of Rhett Butler. It is a correction of the flaws the author perceives to exist in the original.
Many other reviews mention the inconsistencies between this book and GWTW (to which this book must and should be compared), and it's important to consider these not just because it's a kind of cheating not to work within the framework of the source novel, but to consider why McCaig made the changes he did. For example, there is no mention of Scarlett's miscarriage. Why? Because it doesn't fit McCaig's image of Rhett Butler. Then McCaig's Rhett Butler is simply not Rhett Butler.
The Rhett Butler McCaig creates bears almost no resemblance to Mitchell's complex, cynical, wry observer. McCaig's Rhett is morose to the point of clinical depression and very nearly the embodiment of all manly virtues. He is friend to every man, black or white. This puts his character in conflict with the very foundation of the Confederacy. Does he believe in it or doesn't he? That might have been an interesting conflict to explore, but instead, McCaig simply leaves it there on the page, without explanation. Rhett loves and supports blacks on this page. On this page, he loves and supports the Confederacy. The end. McCaig expects you to accept Rhett as he tells you he is, rather than as he shows him.
This happens frequently as numerous characters refer to Rhett as a rakehell and a renegade, but this is never substantiated in the story itself. Just saying a character is a rakehell doesn't make him one when all you show him doing is mooning over the habits of loggerhead turtles, nobly supporting every helpless creature that crosses his path and having palpitations whenever Miss Scarlett smiles at him.
Yes, that's right. This Rhett is reduced to a lovesick schoolboy on first sight of Scarlett O'Hara and on every occasion thereafter. Gone are the sparkling scenes where he taunts and teases Scarlett, admiring her very worst qualities and loving her for them. Instead, the love scenes between this paragon of a Rhett and this confident, erudite and unrecognizable Scarlett are on the level of second-rate romantic bilgewater. ("Scarlett. Sunshine, hope and everything he ever wanted.")
Other scenes are referenced but skipped over and replaced with McCaig's inventions, again to facilitate his vision of Rhett. Instead of a scene where Rhett offers Scarlett a green silk hat from Paris to deliberately torment her false sense of propriety, knowing she will be torn between wanting to wear it and not wanting to expose herself by throwing off her widow's weeds, we get Rhett breathlessly offering Scarlett the yellow silk shawl she in turn makes into a sash for Ashley. Only this time, instead of the silk shawl being a minor symbol of Rhett's easy profligacy in a time of want and self-denial, McCaig constructs a ludicrously maudlin tale of the shawl having belonged to Rhett's adorable Bonnie-Blue-esque niece, who had been killed in the shelling of Charleston. Scarlett is somehow supposed to recognize what--in the original--Rhett obviously knew was a rather tacky and gaudy trifle--as the deepest offering of a devoted man's heart. When she fails to, she crushes the tenderest hopes of this noble creature.
There are occasions when he can't avoid retelling scenes from GWTW and that is frequently where he gets tangled up in the conflict between his Rhett and Mitchell's Rhett. A prime example is the flight from Atlanta, where he can't quite make the abandonment of Scarlett work for this lovesick, devoted, perfect Rhett, and so Rhett's motivation is lost in a murky jumble of the romantic uncertainties of a schoolboy. (She never really loved me. I might as well go to war.)
McCaig never comes close to matching Mitchell's voice, as perhaps he shouldn't. But since Mitchell's feminine story was written in a voice that was stringent and vigorous, it is odd to read this masculine story couched in overwrought, flowery prose ("The frosty Milkyway stretched across the heavens to the horizon where it drowned in the ruddy penumbra of guns.") I must also mention, as have others, the frequently disjointed quality of the writing. There are paragraphs made up of sentences that bear no relation to each other and conversations abruptly switch topics depending on what the author needs to have the characters say rather than the natural course of the conversation.
And this isn't even getting into the large sections of the book that are given over to characters that never appeared in GWTW. McCaig's own dear creations. In fact, a case could be made that McCaig sets up his Rosemary Butler as a new and improved Scarlett, giving her similar travails but a more womanly attitude and forebearance and awarding her the coveted prize in the end.
But the key problem in this tale of an alien Rhett and Scarlett isn't that McCaig is entitled to his interpretation. It's that McCaig had no taste for the original. He says as much in an interview in the New York Times, where he admits that he had never read GWTW when approached by St. Martin's to pen a "sequel." When he did finally read it, he pronounced everything but the Civil War bits as "Oh dear."
So then why write it at all? He admits to "four parts poverty" playing a role in his decision. But it's abundantly clear that he does not understand Mitchell's characters and what motivated them and with all the fundamental mistakes he makes, it is also clear that he does not care to. He is more interested in constructing his new, improved versions. It is impossible to read this book without feeling that this was his aim: to show how GWTW ought to have been written.