In Rhett Butler's first appearance in Margaret Mitchell's mega-novel Gone With The Wind, he's the dashing outcast who dares to say the South may not win. When this scene appears in Donald McCaig's novel Rhett Butler's People, a Mitchell-estate-authorized sequel that reads more like an alternate history, the barbecue's host addresses his guest as: "Butler Rhett Butler." Luckily for Mitchell diehards, this scene is considerably more ridiculous than the rest of McCaig's reverent, occasionally inventive novel.
Like James Bond and Batman before him, Rhett Butler gets a reboot in which he sacrifices some of his mystique for emotional depth, from the torments of his past to his efforts to straddle both sides of the law. A West Point dropout, Rhett is disowned after killing an overseer's son in a duel, and he skips Charleston to make his fortune from San Francisco to New Orleans, building the blockade-running fleet he operates throughout the Civil War with his best friend, free black Tunis Bonneau. Meanwhile, the subject of the duel, Belle Watling, establishes a successful brothel in Atlanta, while her son, who may be Rhett's child, comes of age in New Orleans. As Scarlett O'Hara buries her first husband and returns to Tara, Rhett's younger sister Rosemary is shuffled among relatives, makes her Charleston debut, and falls in love with a ne'er-do-well like her brother.
Rhett Butler's People never has a strong enough narrative to stand apart from Mitchell's book, in that it mostly develops incidents from Rhett's past as seen in Gone With The Wind, and the newly established "truth" usually isn't as satisfying as the implication. Still, the characters McCaig creates and expands improve the familiar tale by contributing suspense (plus violence, Civil War action, and slightly more sex) to what might otherwise have been a tour of Rhett's head. Rosemary, particularly, functions as a parallel to Scarlett and as an intriguing counterpoint in her own right. The book's best stretches of dialogue come directly from Gone With The Wind, but McCaig mimics Mitchell's language (including her penchant for exclamation points) so the lines knit seamlessly into his original scenes. Rhett's dutiful, lovesick side will disappoint some readers, but Rhett Butler's People is a better homage than it deserves to be.