My birthday is typically the week after Mother’s Day. This year, instead of gifts (though my Mom cheated and still got me gifts!) we decided to go on a Mother/Daughter trip. My mother has always wanted to visit Savannah, Georgia, but never had the opportunity. A city known for art, history, architecture, and ghosts– it was perfect for us. A place where we could take it easy and never worry about how bored the men of the family were. Bring it on.
Obviously, as part of this trip, my mother suggested we read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Honestly, I didn’t know much about the book. I knew it was based on true events and experiences and there was a Kevin Spacey movie adaption. That was it. I had no idea what I was getting into, and honestly expected I would feel “eh” about this book. I could not have been more surprised.
Rule number one: Always stick around for one more drink. That’s when things happen. That’s when you find out everything you want to know.
If you have been reading my blog, you know that character development is one of my favorite parts of reading. I enjoy watching the characters grow, change, and develop interpersonal relationships which also grow and change. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is broken into parts. The first part is almost exclusively exposition in the form of character development. Each chapter features an interaction Berendt had with the quirky characters of Savannah, GA. These stories feel a little disjointed and, perhaps even irrelevant, at first. After all, I thought I was reading the story of a murder. But these vignettes are essential to understanding the politics and presence of Savannah: a place where people believe in ghosts, where the place where your great-great-grandparents came from matters, a place where anti-Yankee sentiments are quick to the lips, and where you sometimes lose your sense of time. Is it 1980, or is it 1908?
Part I introduces us to the characters to define Savannah. Joe Odom, jack-of-all-trades and master of running from the law; the Lady Chablis, a black drag queen and self proclaimed Grand Empress of Savannah; Serena Dawes, aged former beauty queen who still dresses for the runway; Luther Driggers, the mentally compromised chemist who drugged flies and attached collars to them– the list goes on. These colorful characters are larger than life in so many ways. Over the eight years of the novel we see their trials and tribulations, their happiness and their sadness. But mostly, we see how they mold the define the culture of Savannah. It’s these people, and the others Berendt meets, that really tell the story.
She was a marvel. She did exactly as she pleased all her life, God bless her.
Six months after John Berendt arrives in Savannah and begins befriending the community, a wealthy bachelor antiques dealer, Jim Williams, is charged with the 1981 shooting of Danny Hansford. Danny is a young man known for being “a walking streak of sex”, and Jim Williams was thought to be a closeted homosexual, making all the town gossip chains. Thus began the second part of the book: and the true 8-year story of the only man in Georgia history to ever be tried for the same murder four times.
“Jim Williams’s guilt or innocence is no longer the issue,” he said. “Spencer Lawton’s incompetence is the issue.”
Honestly, the murder and trials of Jim Williams were the least interesting parts to me. Sometimes, it felt like those moments really dragged on. But, for the real Jim Williams, who was in prison off and on for eight years, I imagine it felt much longer. I loved hearing how the characters we met in part one took the news and reacted, both publicly and privately. Watching the events unfold from the eyes of the citizens of Savannah and their small-town perspectives felt quite real. I also really enjoyed meeting some new characters, such as Williams’s lawyer, Sonny Seiler (Sonny and his family maintain the unbroken line of live mascots for the University of Georgia Bulldogs, known as Uga I-X). While I might have felt content dragged on sometimes, all in all the writing was fascinating.
Sometimes, I just can’t face going through with breakfast.
It was quite a pleasure reading this book. Particularly, since I got to both discuss it with my mother, and we went on the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil walking tour in Savannah. We saw most of the buildings mentioned in the book, and learned about some of the modifications Berendt made when writing the novel. It was obvious that our tour guide was a proud 7th generation Savannahian (he only told us Yanks that about 8,000 times), and he wanted the world to know the truth of what happened in his beloved town. Walking the city and experiencing everything also made me feel vindicated that I sometimes forgot what year the book was happening in. 1980 vs. 1908, same deal in a small town focused on historical preservation.
If there’s a single trait common to all Savannahians, it’s their love of money and their unwillingness to spend it.
This book certainly has something for everyone. I strongly recommend it to people interested in history, true crime, or just a good book. I enjoyed it quite a bit, after all. 🙂