Review: Rhett Butler’s People

Rhett Butler’s People

by Donald McCaig

“He was alone; he would always be alone. Rhett could endure being unloved. He could not live without loving.” 

There are few books that I read that pull me in and keep me a willing prisoner. Few books can make me laugh and cry in equal measure,  encouraging me to succumb to emotions I’m not typically comfortable with.

There are even fewer books that I’ve read that have strong male characters that I’d love to get to know in real life. Love to sit down and have a cup of coffee with, to pick their brain and become enamored with in person. Men like Jamie Fraser of Outlander. Gino Santangelo of the Chances series. Matthew Clairmont of the All Souls Trilogy. Monsieur Perdu, curator of books and emotional librarian, of The Little Paris Bookshop

And Mr. Rhett Butler.

Rhett Butler’s People ended up being one of those books, with one of those characters, that I just could hardly bear to put down. I was hoping to learn more about the man who has charmed women with smiles and witty comments, with unexpected chivalry and undeniable criminality,  and I was not disappointed in the slightest.

There are few heroes who can make the transition from literature to the silver screen and back again, procuring and then keeping a captivating hold on an audience of millions for generations to come. Unfortunately many a man has been written to perfection in a book or a short story, but has lost his charm and sparkle once his character hits a television set. The same can be said vice versa.

However, Rhett Butler is not one of those men.

Mr. Butler captured the hearts of a nation in a book that at the time and for decades to come, was and has been considered a scandalous and racially charged masterpiece. Soon after his famous introduction via a heated exchange in a Southern belle’s plantation library, the rakish rogue with devastatingly good looks and insurmountable wit was brought to the theater, portrayed by the handsome Clark Gable. It was a casting of roles that could not have been better. Women around the globe swooned at his devilish charm while men admired his spirit and “don’t give a damn” attitude. Gone With the Wind was an instant classic.

” “Lurid Tales, Tom. Lurid tales are the South’s principal export.

When you describe us to your friends, remark the devilishly handsome, gallant Rhett Butler.” “

But where did Rhett come from? How did he become such a cad in a world full of Charlestonian gentlemen? Where did he go after he abandoned Scarlett on her journey back to Tara, with a gravely ill Melanie Wilkes and baby hunkered down in the back of her wagon and a trail of fire skimming at their feet? What made Rhett think he could behave the way he did – his flashy style and devil-may-care attitude? Why was his best friend a self proclaimed “fallen woman”; one Belle Watling, owner of a whore house? Where was his family?

If you’ve read Gone With the Wind or seen the film version, then you know what the story is about. A Southern Belle in times of war and it’s aftermath. Love and hate, slaves and freed men. It can produce images that are painful and difficult to read and watch, especially as a white woman. No one likes to speak of slavery. In Rhett Butler’s People, a different perspective is readily given. Whilst Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled and beautiful child of an Irish immigrant cotton farmer, expects African Americans to do her bidding and blatantly believes them to be below her, Rhett Butler’s views are different. He grew up on a rice plantation that owned slaves, but the oldest son of the Butler household believed the black man to be his equal, even from a young age. In fact, he preferred the slaves to his own family, finding solace, unconditional love, and in one case a father figure in the men of the different race.

“Ten days later, when Rhett returned to Broughton, Will had been buried in the slave cemetery and Mistletoe had been sold South. Broughton Plantation was miles of drowned, stinking rice plants.

Langston Butler was personally supervising a gang repairing breaks in the main trunk while Watling’s gang restored the interior trunks. Men trundled wheelbarrows of fill; women and children emptied pails and buckets in the breaches. 

Rhett’s father’s boots were filthy and he hadn’t shaved in days. His soft hands were cracked and his fingernails were broken. Langston Butler greeted his son, “We accounted you dead. Your mother is grieving.” 

“My mother has a tender heart, sir.” 

“Where have you been?”

“The free colored Thomas Bonneau saved me from the hurricano. I have been helping his family restore their homestead.”

“Your duty was with your people.”

Rhett said nothing.”

The story is told in the perspective of several different people, all of whom are close to Rhett and could be considered part of his lifeline, his own heart’s blood.

They are his people:

Rosemary Butler is his baby sister, the one family member he has and will always have affection for no matter what mistakes she makes as she grows into a belle herself. We follow Rosemary’s life from childhood to late adulthood, weeping alongside her as she suffers great losses during the war and as she learns lessons the hard way. Readers witness a transformation come about in her that is awe-inspiring and graceful.

Andrew Ravenel is one of Rhett’s childhood friends. The son of a gambling plantation owner who eventually loses everything worth anything, Andrew is constantly trying to find his place in the world and to make a name for himself – whatever the cost.

Scarlett O’Hara is the love of Rhett’s life, but she is in love with another.

Melanie Wilkes, a genteel and steadfastly loyal woman who is as respectable as they come. She considers Mr. Butler her friend and that is an honor taken very seriously by the other women of the Southern order.

Tunis Bonneau, a freed black man who dances the dangerous dance of the blockades.

Will Benteen is the wife of Scarlett’s sister and chief officer at Tara after the war. His guidance is helping to turn the plantation around, but he is met at every corner with a mysterious and nefarious display of sabotage. He is trying to keep everything moving for the people he shares his life with; women and children and a mentally crippled Ashley Wilkes.

Tazewell Watling is the presumed bastard son of Rhett Butler and he has a bone to pick, to say the least. Readers share his chronicled journey from an orphanage in New Orleans to boarding school in England, back to a masked ball in the Crescent City and an eventual trip over the pond to help heal the wounded heart of his caretaker.

And lastly, Ms. Belle Watling, the overseer’s daughter, business owner and partner, mother to Taz  and Rhett’s best friend. This relationship was the most significant to me, as a reader of both Gone With the Wind and this book. She was a woman I did not like, when told from Scarlett’s perspective, but came to admire and respect greatly in this book.

The war is coming and there’s no stopping it. The South has their beliefs, as does newly elected President Abraham Lincoln. Rhett Butler doesn’t know any other way to shield those he loves from this excess of greed, destruction, devastation, and senseless pride than to try and make as much money as he can, as quickly as he can, so he can provide for their futures – if they have end up having one. Luckily for Rhett, that while he was kicked out of West Point, he still has common sense and ingenuity on his side.

“Rhett Butler wasn’t too sentimental to profit from Southern blunders. The South grew two-thirds of the world’s cotton and Rhett knew Lincoln’s navy would blockade the Southern ports. After the ports were closed, cotton prices would skyrocket. Rhett’s cotton would be safe in the Bahamas before Federal blockaders came on station.

The money was nothing; ashes in his mouth. Rhett felt like a grown-up watching children playing games. They yelled, they gestured, they pretended to be Indians or Redcoats or Yankee soldiers. They strutted and played at war. It made Rhett Butler want to weep. He was helpless to prevent it. Utterly helpless.” 

But before he strikes out for California in search of gold, gambles for a living in New Orleans, and has miscellaneous adventures in Cuba and the Caribbean, he is invited to a barbecue on an old plantation called Twelve Oaks, courtesy of a young businessman named Frank Kennedy. It is there that he is to meet the one and only woman who will ever be able to hold him. The woman who will be in control of his heart for the rest of his life, whether he likes it or not. They are fated, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara. And it is a fate met in tragedy time and time again.

“Frank hastened to his duty. With a polite nod to his host, Rhett withdrew to a quiet corner of the veranda. He wished he hadn’t come. 

Twelve Oaks buzzed like a honeybee swarm on its mating flight. There’d be marriages made today and doubtless a scandal or two. Swirling through the floral and Parisian perfumes, amid the gaiety, flirting, and jests was romance, as fresh as if no man or maid had experienced romance before. 

Rhett’s eyes fell on a very young woman in a green dancing frock and his heart surged. “Dear God,” he whispered. 

She wasn’t a great beauty; her chin was pointed and her jaw had too much strength. She was fashionably pale — ladies never exposed their skin to the brutal sun — and unusually animated. As Rhett watched, she touched a young buck’s arm both intimately and carelessly. 

When the girl felt Rhett’s gaze she looked up. For one scorching second, her puzzled green eyes met his black eyes before she tossed her head dismissively and resumed her flirtation. 

Forgotten the looming War. Forgotten the devastation he expected. Hope welled up in Rhett Butler like a healing spring. “My God.” Rhett moistened dry lips. “She’s just like me!” “

Much like it’s predecessor, Rhett Butler’s People isn’t all about romance. It’s not even mostly about romance. It’s about the people in Rhett’s life who make him who he is and who he becomes. It is a story of the decisions and hard choices he must make on behalf of those people and the paths that he is subsequently put down because of them. Many, many blanks are filled in for the fans who always asked themselves –“What happened to him? Where was he? Why is he like this?”

Instead of witnessing the evolution of a boy into a man during difficult times, we see that Rhett was always Rhett. He was always true to himself and what he believed. Even if it was the unpopular opinion. Even if it meant being stricken from the family Bible.

I loved this book. I can’t believe I let it sit on my shelf for as long as I did. I picked it up for $2 in the clearance section of my local bookstore more than a year ago and always meant to get around to it, but got involved in several other series and just didn’t have the time. I urge any fan of Gone With the Wind – whether literary or through film – to read this book. It is not an overly descriptive tome when it comes to the war; the author does not get bogged down the way some can when speaking on battles. It flows naturally and fluidly. And actually, so does Gone With the Wind. I know some people shy away from it because it’s a large book, but it’s not as difficult to read as one might think. I don’t recommend reading Rhett Butler’s People unless you’ve either read Gone With the Wind or seen the movie – or else you’ll find yourself asking what the hell he saw in that spoiled brat Southern belle, anyway.

Some of the language is not for the faint of heart. Due to the subject matter – the reasons for war and the spirit of the South – certain words that are not acceptable in today’s society are thrown around loosely and easily. It makes one uncomfortable. But I think that’s important. I think it’s meant to make us uncomfortable.

If you’ve read Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett, you will be confused and/or surprised at the last part of this book. It is written as if the book Scarlett was never in existence. There is zero bridge between these books other than the fact that it has some of the same characters. According to some research I did, the estate of Margaret Mitchell believed Scarlett to be a bit of an embarrassment and Rhett Butler’s People was meant to take the place of it. I didn’t much care for Scarlett and so I was thrilled to have this book replace it in my mind as to the proper ending for two people such as Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler.

I give this book five out of five stars and urge you to drop whatever you’re doing and read it! And if you don’t, well then frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

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