Book Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

I suppose that I first heard of the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” when the movie came out, although I never saw the film.

Going to Savannah earlier this month was not purely because of the book, but my decision to read the book was all because I was going there.

I started, of course, by reading the jacket cover and realized that I didn’t know anything about this book except it was tied to Savannah and the image of the statue on the book and movie cover. I didn’t even know that the statue on the cover had a name; I know now it’s called The Bird Girl.

I didn’t know that Midnight is non-fiction. I didn’t know that author John Berendt didn’t set out to write a book about Savannah; he just visited there and was seduced by its mysterious charm. He didn’t set out knowing what was going to come out of his time in the coastal Georgia town. He couldn’t have, since there was no way of knowing about the  high-profile murder case that would take place in during his time there and that would eventually become the crux of his story.

The book tells the true story of various Savannah citizens who author John Berendt encountered in Savannah and the four-year high-profile murder trial of Jim Williams. It’s a glimpse into Savannah society, which is almost indescribably unique. The people in the book read like made-up characters, and perhaps Berendt took some creative license, but I believe some of his descriptions are truly how it was.

I can’t separate my reading of the book from my visit because the two are so intertwined. I intended on finishing the book prior to my trip, but  I ended up taking the book with me and reading the last few chapters in Savannah, which was actually kinda cool. A little like wearing the concert shirt to the concert, but I’m ok with that. I read a few pages or passages while sitting in Ellis Square, just a few blocks down from the Mercer-Williams House where the murder took place. It was just the Mercer House in the book, but the fame of Williams, due in part, I imagine, to the book, resulted in the change in name.

In fact, that’s the thing I can’t shake, is that the book changed Savannah, in ways small and great. The name of the house is different, for example. Maybe it would have been named that even without the book, but I imagine that the fame of Williams because of the book was a big factor.

The statue featured on the cover of the book used to be in the Bonaventure Cemetery just outside the city; it had to be moved in 1997 (the year the movie came out) because so many fans came to see it. It’s now in the Telfair Art Museum in downtown Savannah, and you have to pay to see it.

Tourism in Savannah has certainly benefited from the book, the movie, and the publicity surrounding them. I read a statistic that tourism in Savannah has more than doubled since the best selling book and subsequent move were released. There are entire bus tours devotedly solely to taking tourists to the sites in the book. Midnight, by the way, is referred to as “The Book” in Savannah, as if there is no other.

Gift shop walls are covered with Bird Girl statues of all sizes and other book paraphernalia — bookmarks, postcards; you can buy almost anything with the book cover image on it.

Then there’s shelves full of what I would call spin off books, one about the Bird Girl herself and others about Bonaventure Cemetery.

As a writer, I can’t imagine writing something so powerful to inflict such change. I wish I could interview John Berendt and ask him what’s that like, to change a community with the telling of a story, and if he’s even realized that that’s what he’s done.

As for the content of the book, it’s a mixed bag. The story of the court case is as good as any John Grisham court story I’ve read. The characters aren’t well-behaved, to put it lightly.


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