This week’s book, John Berendt’s historical non-fiction, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was the 8th book in our book challenge, and the first non-fiction book of the challenge! With murder, voodoo and… drag queens… Berendt’s novel was a great choice for October’s Halloween themed reading.
Berendt’s novel is less of a “story” and more a dictation of Berendt’s years in Savannah, Georgia. Berendt narrates his own experience in the city, explaining his interactions with the various sides of Savannah society, ranging from the elite, 7th generation Savannahians, to the nouveau riche, to the outcasts of society. Set in the 1980s, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil seems a pretty outlandish story – made even more interesting by the fact that it is true!
A visitor to Savannah, Berendt is immediately swept up by Savannah’s beauty – from it’s gardens to it’s stately mansions – and decides to split his time between Savannah and his hometown, New York City. The longer Berendt spends in Savannah, the more friends he makes, and the more friends he makes, the more exposed he becomes to the underlying tensions in the city. Berendt clearly outlines the still prevalent “caste system,” that places importance not only on socioeconomic background, but on upbringing and, most importantly, race. Savannah may have lead the way in integrating in the 1960s, but it seems it was only to seem “proper” rather than “right.” The defined classes – “old blood/old money, old blood/no money, new blood/old money, new blood/new money, white middle class, white lower class, black” – are ingrained in Savannah more so than the beautiful architecture. These classes also help drive the main drama in Berendt’s novel – a shooting in a stately mansion.
Berendt spends the first half of his book introducing you to the characters. He could have left this out, and the main point of the story (the shooting and the trial) would still have been interesting, but by including such a deep explanation of the characters, Berendt really makes you feel like you are in Savannah, interacting with these people. From the shooter, Jim Williams, to local con-man, Joe Odem, to the “Grand Empress of Savannah” (drag queen) Lady Chablis, Berendt seems to have met everyone of note in Savannah, and been exposed to the various faces of the city. A lot of time and words are spent explaining and introducing characters who have no sway on the main plot line, but these words make the book much richer and much more interesting. It’s hard to believe there are such diverse and interesting people all in the same few blocks of Savannah.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is exceptionally well written! The pages turn quickly, and soon you feel like you are there, walking the beautiful streets of historic Savannah. The story is the perfect combination of drama, snobbery, humor, history and mystery. It really does have something to offer every reader. Personally, I felt the most interesting part of the story was the explanation of the revival of Savannah starting in the 1950s, and how the city was rescued and restored. I’ve always been interested in the beautiful Southern city, and now I’m determined to visit as soon as I can. Berendt tells a wonderful narrative of a typical Southern town – complete with Cotillion balls and elite, membership only organizations – and introduces the “seedy underbelly” that comes with every city – drag queens running a muck, Voodoo priestesses spreading curses. It’s almost too much to believe, but Berendt takes you there.
I really enjoyed this week’s reading. As I said, the beginning of the story was a little slow, but getting to know the characters made me feel like I was really part of the story. I hope anyone who read along with me enjoyed this book, and look forward to your thoughts on this book!