That College Dream: Beaucoup de devoirs et a book review

Note: So, I’ve been crazy lazy with the blog lately as I have been swamped with homework. I’m actually kind of happy with some of the writing I’ve done, so I’ll probably start posting some of it here. Like this one today. This is a book review I turned in last night for a Magazine Writing class. It’s kind of longer than I would have written, but minimum was 7 pages, so it got stretched out a bit.

The book I reviewed alongside my favorite novel

The book I reviewed alongside my favorite novel

The reasons why fanfiction exists are readily apparent to anyone who has fallen deeply and irrevocably in love with a fictional character, doomed to be forever separated by ink and the bitter moorings of reality. Less clear is why fanfiction is ever published in book form rather than merely on internet sites where Rule #34 applies. A perfect example of this is Fifty Shades of Gray, which began as a Twilight fanfiction and now has its own film coming out just in time for the book fans to find a sado-masochist to drag along for V-Day. On the other hand, the Star Wars universe has expanded—and continues to expand—far beyond the concerns of the original film characters while being quite lucrative and without devolving into alien orgies, or so I’m told. It was with the latter point in mind that I bought Rhett Butler’s People (2007) by Donald McCaig on Amazon for $3.75.

My first fictional crush was King Corlath of Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, soon followed by Fred Weasley of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. But these were childish fancies compared to the deep, and continuing, love I hold for Rhett Butler, the captivating and constantly thwarted hero of Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Having read the book multiple times, I discovered a few years ago that there was a “sequel” called Scarlett written in 1991 by Alexandra Ripley. This proved to be a fanfiction true to the literary style of Mitchell’s original Civil War romance, which shows how Rhett and Scarlett get back together, as every reader of Mitchell’s book presumably wishes to see, despite Mitchell’s assertion before her death that the book ended exactly how it was supposed to, sans happy ending. Critics hated the sequel, but it sold well, so apparently not everyone found it reprehensible. Naturally, it was an embarrassment to the Margaret Mitchell estate despite—or perhaps because of—being the one who commissioned the novel.

In order to restore the good name of the original author, the estate commissioned McCaig to write a second authorized novel. The result was Rhett Butler’s People: a novel which predates the source material for the first 100 pages before merging to ostensibly tell events from the hero’s point of view rather than that of the heartless vixen he loves and then continuing after the original story for an additional 100 pages. It sounds promising, which makes it all the more disappointing that this book is practically unreadable.

Sometimes it takes a while to tell if a book will be satisfying, and sometimes, it is evident from the first chapter. This book fell into the latter category, yet such was my desire to like it that I kept at it. I hoped that I could get past the poor style choices and unnecessary presence of secondary characters from the original. The great strengths I found with Scarlett were that Ripley managed to passably emulate the writing style of Mitchell and carry the story away from all except the central two characters. Perhaps it wasn’t the most exciting, historically accurate, or even logical of stories, yet the writing itself evoked the same appeal of the original novel with lengthy descriptive paragraphs just to the right of too long, dialogue that flowed realistically even when the subject matter was farcical, and a way of presenting characters and events as multi-dimensional. McCaig’s writing captured none of this. His novel is purely modern. There is no echo of a slower paced time when a 700-page novel could have both length and depth. Within the 38 pages of chapter one, there are 18 page breaks, 3 point-of-view changes, and 1 massive time shift to the past and back again. It seems that somewhere in writing his celebrated Civil War novels, McCaig learned that starting at an exciting point and then jumping backward to explain how the characters reached this point was an excellent way to draw in readers. This is a misguided notion that many modern novelists share. It rarely works.

The overly abundant page breaks jar the reader every few paragraphs for the first half and are replaced by exceedingly short chapters in the second half. One moment, Rhett Butler is about to be killed in a duel of honor—aha, I think to myself, this is the infamous buggy story mentioned in the original; alas, both yes and no—and the next moment it is nine years prior and a child is being whipped as punishment for an offense that is never actually described. It is as though McCaig asked himself why children hate their fathers as we are told in GWTW that Rhett does, and the only answer he could muster was: their fathers whip them for no apparent reason. Of course, the author does actually provide some other information for the background of Rhett. Unfortunately, it is so haphazard and most of it seems so irrelevant that I now feel I know the character less for all of this excess information. In fact, the whole of Rhett’s childhood—and most of the novel—seems to be less a story and more a summation of the character’s life, similar to something that could be found on Wikipedia. It could be that this impression derives from the nearly exclusive presence of one to two paragraph sentences which really only belong in journalism anyway. Though again, this is a modern novel writing preference for the shortened paragraphs and the “white space” test. It has become more important to see how much blank space there is on the page than how many words.

The core concept of the novel as presented by the back cover summary is almost immediately discarded for a different spin-off idea. While Rhett does appear as the central character for about half of the book, the rest of the space is devoted to his sister, some old school chums, and Belle Watling’s son. This does make the book’s title more apt, but it is also a double-edged sword for the author. His attention is divided between so many characters that it becomes increasingly clear why he feels the need to include so many page breaks. Just when I thought he had introduced the last new character who would receive multiple chapters in his or her viewpoint, a new chapter begins with someone I have never heard of before. There simply is not enough room to breathe. And herein lies the true sin of the novel. A different stylistic approach is forgivable and could even be a welcome change for fans of the original story. However, with this style, characterization takes a back seat, or worse, it must be spoon-fed to the reader in unhealthy dollops of info dumps. The characters, both central and secondary, that have been fleshed out in the source material are reduced to Central Park caricatures, and the majority of the new characters fair little better.

Approximately the first 100 pages are dedicated to Rhett’s life before meeting Scarlett O’Hara. These chapters include his sister, Rosemary. Following Rhett, Rosemary is probably the closest to a core character in this spin-off. She is mentioned only in passing in the original novel, so McCaig had a great deal of room to play with her here. However, her storyline rarely makes sense, and when it does, she suffers cliché losses. Her love story mimics that of her brother, though before his occurs in the book’s timeline, so perhaps she is intended as a lesson to Rhett, which he obviously does not learn, thus making the whole scenario pointless. This example highlights how the story often falls into a fanfiction trap that more traditional prequels also encounter: the author must include as many references to the original as possible to please the fans. Another beautiful example of this is how the author ties Belle Watling into Rhett’s life. The carriage and dishonored girl gossip from the beginning of GWTW is twisted into a more deplorable tale for the sake of, I don’t know, titillation of the fans perhaps? Whatever the reason, it hurts more than it helps.

One of the charms of the original novel is that the Civil War serves as mostly a backdrop and occasional plot point for the main action of the heroine’s life. McCaig seems much more interested in the war itself; many scenes throw his invented characters into unlikely places in order to describe battles irrelevant to the story’s normal concerns. This is not all together a bad thing. Some of the best scenes occur for this reason. While most of the characters walk around like cardboard cutouts spouting the necessary renditions from GWTW, McCaig’s Col. Andrew Ravanel actually gets to breathe for a little while in an Ohio scene after a failed raid. Additionally, a scene at the fall of Fort Fisher where Rhett rescues Belle’s son from almost certain death by getting him drunk—unlikely enough on its own but the set up for how everybody even gets to that point is worse—is actually a delightful read, which ends all too soon with McCaig’s customary “hint at things but never describe fully” approach.

At a few misguided points, the author tries to explain some of the questionable behavior of characters—particularly Rhett—in the original story. One particularly grand failure is during the fall of Atlanta when Rhett rescues Scarlett only to abandon her on the road to Tara while he goes to join the doomed Army. It didn’t make sense to the heroine in GWTW, and it still doesn’t make sense to this reader after the clumsy attempt at peering into Rhett’s thoughts during this moment. McCaig attempts to foreshadow the loss of love that comes at the end of the original narrative, which weakens the question of the classic: why do people do any of the stupid things that they do?

Of course, the role of the spin-off may be to attempt to explain some of the unanswered questions, but as with most prequels, spin-offs, and fanfiction, the novel is at its best when farthest removed from the source material. Somewhere in the middle of the book, McCaig finally stops trying to replicate scenes from GWTW to hold the story together and gives the characters some leeway to expand beyond the confines of the original book. As with most good things in this book, this is both refreshing and nerve-wracking. After the war has ended and Scarlett has married Frank Kennedy, Belle decides that she should become a lady and win the heart of her old friend Rhett. This is actually a wonderful chapter in the middle of an otherwise sagging narrative, and the vignette flows well overall. The problem arises from Belle seeking advice on this matter from Melanie Wilkes. Anyone unfamiliar with the original would not know enough about Melanie to think it either odd or normal for this to occur. However, most readers will have some inkling as to the character of Melanie, so while the situation itself could be set up to make sense,—though here the author fell short, as well—the dialogue is forced and awkward. As with other points of the book, the author gets a fresh great idea, and he mars it by trying to tie things too closely to the original.

Some of the most enjoyable scenes occur after Rhett and Scarlett are married, which happens about 400 pages into the book. It seems that at this point, McCaig realized that Mitchell actually left a great deal of room in her narrative for other stories. Because GWTW spans a solid decade, there are plenty of holes in the timeline that could be played with, and it is unfortunate that McCaig wrote over 400 pages of a spin-off before actually taking advantage of this. Of course, after this pleasant section of honeymoon adventures, the story is back in Atlanta, and the author is skipping through time like an Easter bunny on crack. No time to talk about the couple’s life together before they start making each other miserable. Suddenly there’s a kid, the second pregnancy might as well not exist, and oh look, Melanie is dead, and there’s the end of the source material. It was like the Cliff Notes version of GWTW with an additional chapter from the four-year-olds perspective that I could have done without.

The middle 500 pages, despite their erratic leaps through space and time, seem to drag, overloaded as they are with expressionless characters and encyclopedic summaries of otherwise interesting material. My favorite example of this came at the opening to part two, 300 pages into the story: “Charleston surrendered, Columbia burned, Petersburg fell, Richmond burned; the Confederate armies surrendered. It was finished” (335). These two sentences perfectly encapsulated the summation-style of the novel as a whole. I had to wade through 600 pages of “why am I reading this again?” to get to something that I actually felt was worth my time. The story after Rhett leaves is completely new material. There are exciting happenings, and the author actually takes the time to describe them instead of rushing past to touch all the bases. Some of the original sins persist, such as continuing to include worn out characters and endless rows of page breaks with the accompanying viewpoint changes. Yet, somehow that latter example actually works here; perhaps it is because the page breaks and viewpoint changes actually serve to further the plot—which does finally exist—and they do not include time leaps of indeterminate length.

There is a requisite sappy montage of old characters coming together to welcome the new age, but I was actually surprised that there were so many secondary characters left to bring back together considering the author’s penchant for killing them off. Granted, Mitchell killed a great many of her characters initially, but McCaig takes this to new levels. A great number of both the new characters and old characters die in order to further plot points, or maybe it is just because he felt like it. There seem to be attempts at pulling on heartstrings with these deaths, but often the writing is so circumspect in describing them—or simply too hokey—so that they generally fall flat. It does not help that most of the characters have been so drained of life already that their actual death in the narrative seems unnecessary.

Overall, the book was probably worth $4. Amidst the summary and lazy characterization, there were genuine moments of ingenuity and interesting material. And, after all, no butchery of back story can ever really kill my love for the great Rhett Butler.

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