Review by Max Dunbar
The Savannah of George Dawes Green‘s mystery novel is full of tourists. Not regular tourists. These tourists ride around in the back of a hearse. In the very first scene one of these hearses comes up an intersection with ‘a ghoul-guide on a loudspeaker’ and lads at the back shouting insults at the locals. Another tourist charter interrupts a conversation between three characters later, this one an open horse-drawn carriage with a guide who is ‘bombastic, with a phony Oxford accent and expansive gestures, and Ransom knows him from amateur theatricals around town.’ The guide begins to tell his party about a servant named Alice Riley, who was hanged in Wright Square
beneath the limbs of that majestic oak. And her crime, my friends? She proved to be a faithless servant. Some say she was a prostitute, some say a Jezebel, some say a witch.
The ghost tours of Savannah are a real thing. Colin Dickey, in Ghostland, wrote about Elena Gormley, a former ghost tour guide who came to feel that the stories ‘repackaged the rape, abuse and lynching of vulnerable women into family friendly entertainment.’ Gormley’s tours included the Sorrel-Weed House, where the plantation boss, Francis Sorrel, was supposed to be having an affair with one of his slaves, a Haitian woman named Molly who was found hanged after Sorrell’s wife Matilda had also killed herself after learning of the relationship. ‘As part of the tour script, Gormley would play an EVP recording provided for her that supposedly documented the paranormal screams of Molly from beyond the grave… whenever she’d ask the guests what they’d heard, Gormley notes, the “white tourists always made smart comments. Once, on a charter tour for auto parts managers, a man yelled, ‘Sounds like my regional manager!'” His buddies all laughed.”
It’s not hard to figure out that the ghost tours are what Sarah Churchwell called Lost Cause mythmaking – narratives developed over time by various Southern thinkers and dignitaries to rebrand the horrors of Southern history and make them nostalgic, and palatable. For whatever reason, the Halloween theme seems to work (it’s said that the second Klan wore white sheets because they wanted to be taken for the ghosts of Confederate war dead, after all). Savannah was not the only city that asked tour guides to pass a quiz on local history. But Gormley said the quiz was ‘ideologically slanted toward minimising controversial or problematic aspects of the city’s history in favour of things that portray it in a neutral or positive light.’ As Green writes: ‘The guides don’t dwell on the darker history of this square. The slaughter of the Native Americans, the century of slavery, the corpses hanging from these oaks (the old courthouse is next door) the Klan rallies, the desecration of Tomochichi’s grave to make room for the Slavery and Railroad Tycoon: all that is set aside so they can focus on the ghosts. ‘Folks around heah all sway-uh that on moonless nights they can still hear Tomochichi laughin and hollerin with his good pal General Oglethorpe…”
Characters in The Kingdoms of Savannah grapple with competing narratives. The family matriarch, Morgana, has an oil painting depicting a racetrack of 1856. It’s a jovial work of reckless detail that focuses on ‘the mobcapped women, the waistcoated men, cursing, cheering, waving scarves.’ All very civilised. Except the racetrack was owned by a man named Charles Lamar, a racist maniac with big plans: ‘he’d provoke the South into seceding, then conquer Mexico and Cuba and South America, and give birth to a new Empire of Slavery, which he’d populate with millions upon millions of freshly enslaved Africans’. Lamar used the racetrack for a slave auction and sold off 432 men, women, and children.
At the heart of the novel is another hidden history: a secret Kingdom of free people. Jobbing archaeologist Stony is the only person who knows about it, and in local bars she talks of the Kingdom like it’s a living utopia, not historical fact. It seems like gibberish, but apparently Stony needs to be silenced. She is kidnapped from outside the bar. Her best friend, Luke, a drifter and model, is burned to death in a rented house. Police suspect the town slumlord, Archibald Guzman, nicknamed ‘The Gooze’, who could have burned the building for insurance money. The Gooze is a foul, complacent, wicked old man, but he insists on his innocence… and Morgana begins to believe him.
Her husband long dead, Morgana leads the old Southern family of the Musgroves. Green follows high lives and low in his novel. His heroes are the lost people, the men and women who camp out in the ‘Truman Marriott’ and other tent cities that spring up in the forests and under the freeways of Savannah: Billy Sugar and his dog Gracie, Hatchet Head, the Musician, and Ransom Musgrove, lawyer turned drifter and convict. But there is some affection left over for Morgana, too. She was once an outsider in the city, but from the off, one old admirer says, Morgana was erudite, self educated, and a great reader of people – ‘She’d be watching folks all night, and Christ, the things she noticed. Drive her home and she’d tell me her theories. Her notions. As to who’d be setting up with whom, who’d be getting his heart broken, whose love affair was going to take place despite all protestations to the contrary, who’d be risin in the world and who’d be losing all his money.’ Morgana has always aspired to be a part of Savannah’s past as well as its present. To horrible relics like the Lamar painting, she says she is merely a steward of the work. But when her niece Jaq objects to the painting, Morgana slices it into ribbons and sends it to her in a jewellery box.
The Kingdoms of Savannah is a short novel, barely three hundred pages, but it feels vast, and in a good way. Green’s dialogue is rapid and discursive in the way John Berendt captured Savannah speech in his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Green’s characters rival the real life figures of Berendt’s true crime classic in their liveliness and their weirdness. Green grew up in Georgia himself and includes in his book historical endnotes, which are worth reading for their scholarship and Green’s obvious love of the city. At the heart of his fiction is not mythmaking but the pursuit of truth.
Max blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com and tweets as @MaxDunbar1.
George Dawes Green, The Kingdoms of Savannah, (Headline, 2023). 978-1035401871, 352pp., paperback.
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