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History Lessons
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LOOKING FOR INFORMATION on Georgia history? 2008 seems the perfect year for historical pursuits, since Georgia Historical Society (GHS) has dedicated most of February to celebrating Georgia’s 275th anniversary.

In addition to their own roster of activities, GHS is also a co-sponsor of next weekend’s Savannah Book Festival, where one of the festival’s five venues will be dedicated to showcasing history writers. But bibliophiles coming to the book festival in search of Savannah history may find even more of what they seek in the Fiction, Contemporary Issues, and even Lifestyle venues. Their job as readers will be sorting fact from fiction, but even when those lines blur, the stories in these books patch together a colorful quilt describing our community’s past.

For 18th and early 19th century information, author Charles Johnson’s 2002 biography of Mary Telfair is well readable and thoroughly researched. It’s also the only book with a Savannah link being featured in the History category.

At the festival’s Fiction venue, William C. Harris Jr. offers up accounts of Civil War and early 20th century events in his first two Savannah based novels. In Delirium of the Brave, Harris’s tales of local scandal, corruption, and murder seem nearly incredible, but it turns out they’re based on everyday life in the era of Savannah’s political boss system. Rumor has it that Wassaw Sound, Harris’ third roman a’ clef, will debut at the festival.

Some day, the late 1990’s really will be history, and when that time comes, Mary Kay Andrews’ chick-lit novel Savannah Blues might end up as required social studies reading. Hopefully at her book festival appearance in the Fiction venue, she’ll talk about her “research” for this affectionate, a-little-too-accurate lampoon of society life in our town, complete with good old boys, a threatened historical landmark, a few extramarital affairs and round-the-clock cocktails.

Washington Post associate editor Kevin Merida and White House correspondent Michael A. Fletcher (appearing at the Contemporary Issues venue) have received kudos from national reviewers for 2007’s Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas. While legal and political junkies will find much to learn in the authors’ depiction of Thomas’ adult life, local historians will find hidden gems in their account of his Savannah childhood. The book’s early chapters tell the seldom-told story of Savannah’s African American Roman Catholic community, the educational and spiritual launching pad for many of Savannah’s prominent political leaders.

And then there’s John Berendt. The first time I read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was in 1994, while preparing for my move back to Savannah after eleven years away. At that time the book barely held my attention; I forced myself to push through to the final page.

Last year, curious if Midnight would be a different read after 13 years back home, I tried again, and this time finished it off in a few nights. Those events of nearly three decades ago now seem like ancient history, and the town described in Berendt’s book is almost a different community.

It’s a downtown where middle aged urban pioneers and eccentric socialites live in restored three story houses next door to bartenders and waiters in cheap rental apartments. These days a few of those pioneers still live downtown, now surrounded by a few younger families or full time homeowners, but mostly by apartments-turned-condominiums, restored high priced lofts, and million dollar second residences for out-of-towners.

Art students, plentiful all over downtown in the 21st century, are mentioned in passing in Midnight as the evidence of a tiny art school that sprung up in Savannah a few years earlier. I can’t recall if the tourism that has consumed present-day downtown is even mentioned.

So, at which venue will Berendt be speaking during the Savannah Book Festival? For starters, he’s part of the keynote presentation on Friday, which is a genre-free activity.

Saturday it gets a bit trickier. Any book set in the ‘80s rules out current events. Despite being on the nonfiction bestseller list for years, Berendt’s publisher admits he rearranged some chronology to suit the story line, so that eliminates the history category, but the use of real people, places and events also knocks out the fiction category.

Midnight may be well written, but it’s definitely not Poetry, so out goes that venue as well. The only remaining category is Lifestyle, the right niche for this genre-bending portrait of a place and time that was, and in a different way still is, a way of life.

For more information on the Savannah Book Festival see

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