“The Kingdoms of Savannah” by George Dawes Green

The Kingdoms of Savannah (Celadon Books, 2022) reads like a fine literary suspense novel, a top-tier mystery. But Kingdoms triumphs in extending the boundaries of the genre. George Dawes Green unearths so many long-buried layers of history with such drama, such flair, such artistic skill that readers may not even be aware they are reading a thoroughly researched record of the fabled city of Savannah. Not since Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has a novel captured the city’s essence so well. The impressive achievement of Kingdoms is the clear presentation of the varied social classes, from the old-moneyed ruling class in their mansions to the thousands of homeless camped out in tents. Green digs into the privileged realm of slave owners, as well as the lives of free Blacks who lived in the “Kingdom.” He digs into history we didn’t learn in school.

Ransom Musgrove, renegade lawyer son of the ruling class, provides a skeptical view of his family. He chooses to live in a homeless encampment rather than the family mansion, known as the “Old Fort.” In the opening pages, he visits his family home for the first time in ages. He notices nothing has changed with delicious scorn: “His forebears scowl down from their frames. He appreciates that none of them pretend to be happy.” Discovering why such an intelligent, educated man would choose to live among the homeless is one of the pleasures of reading the novel.

Jaq is another important voice in the story. She, too, descends from the Musgroves, but she is Black, a college-age student. She has undertaken a huge project: capturing the soul of her city in a documentary film titled “Some Town Out of a Fable.” Yet she admits the city is more like “a pit of vipers” than a “fable or fairy tale.” Her friend Luke is murdered early in the story, and another friend, Stony, goes missing. Jaq, assisted by her family, is determined to uncover the truth behind these crimes.

If the Musgroves are a royal family, then Morgana reigns as queen. She proves an intriguing character, both part of the upper class and witty detractor of it. She “hurls burning energy” at every charitable cause, knows where all the bodies are buried and where all the secrets are stored. She convinces her son Ransom to accompany her to visit a criminal named Guzman in jail with an eye toward Ransom’s representing him. Reluctantly, Ransom agrees. Morgana decides Guzman is possibly innocent of killing Luke, though she deems the inmate “a weasel or a vulture” who “imagines he’s full of virtue.” Ransom is ticked off by her assumptions, annoyed by “her cocksureness, her iron faith in her ability to see through everyone’s masks and divine their true motives.” Still, Guzman delivers a few clues surrounding Luke’s murder—something vague about Stone Kings and treasure.

Green paints every aspect of the city with rich detail, from the SCAD buildings to the famed squares, from dive bars to fine dining establishments. In the background bleats the relentless nattering of ghost tour leaders who gloss over the city’s “darker history,” such as  the “millions of rapes” of slaves resulting in plantation births. Instead, tours focus on what Morgana’s sister calls “a realm of beauty, a realm where the arts are revered, where creative aspiration is cherished where we can forge deep bonds of community around the celebration of genius and imagination.” The safe realm of the upper class. Ghost stories have been rewritten to present the wealthy in a favorable light. Green, however, is not content to showcase only Savannah’s finer aspects. He also has characters tell of “a poisonous vapor in this town, a sort of miasmal gas that rises from the storm drains and leaches into our homes and into our blood.” The result? Despicable crimes. In Green’s skilled hands, characters’ simple walks on the streets become travelogues replete with the signage revealing the personalities of the buildings and their owners:

They don’t take Abercorn Street because Abercorn turns into an endless strip mall south of Victory Drive: Morgana calls it “the largest repository of soul-destroying folderol in the universe.” Instead they take Waters. It’s all old-school Savannah, weird and ebullient the whole way. Rosette’s Lounge (No Loiterers! No Drugs!); the Relentless Church of the Lord; Da Boyz in Da Hood Car-wash (Best Hand Job in Town); Cheryl-Ann’s “Chinese” Take-Out; the Open Door Holy Deliverance Church (Behold the Hand—It’s Not Shortened that it Cannot Save!).

Whether residents live in the mansions or in the tent encampments, they have one thing in common according to Jaq: they are “required to submit, in one way or another, to the yoke of powerful interests.” The conflict between those powerful interests and those who desire to preserve a fuller history of the city offers readers an enlightening and enjoyable ride. A ride far more informative than a mere carriage tour of a few city blocks. Green even takes us beneath the city into its storm drains and out of the city into its swamps. Kingdoms is quite a ride, indeed.

George Dawes Green is clearly a writer at the top of his game. With Kingdoms of Savannah, he has written an historical novel sure to have much greater staying power—and far more significance—than an ordinary mystery.

Green is the founder of The Moth, a not-for-profit storytelling organization based in New York City. His first novel, The Caveman’s Valentine, won the Edgar Award and became a motion picture starring Samuel L. Jackson. The Juror was an international bestseller in more than twenty languages and was the basis for the movie starring Demi Moore and Alec Baldwin. Ravens was chosen as one of the best books of 2009 by the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Daily Mail of London, and many other publications. George Green grew up in Georgia and now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Find an independent bookstore: IndieBound.org.

Leave a Reply