Family, history and modern-day ills intersect in ‘Kingdoms of Savannah’

Moth founder George Dawes Green explores the ugly underbelly of his home state.

“The Kingdoms of Savannah” is George Dawes Green’s probing and evocative novel about a deeply dysfunctional Savannah family who band together to stop a murderer and unwittingly encounter a tangle of corruption. Green draws as much from the city’s checkered history as its modern underbelly to construct this refreshingly humanistic, character-driven examination of power, class and social hierarchy.

The largest slave auction on American soil took place in 1859 at the Ten Broeck Race Course, two miles west of downtown Savannah. For two days rain poured from the sky while 436 enslaved men, women and children were separated from their families and sold in what became known as “The Weeping Time.”

Charles Lamar is the historical figure who owned Ten Broeck. He’s also the forefather of the fictional Musgrove family — the modern-day characters Green has placed at the center of “Kingdoms of Savannah.”

Their reigning matriarch, Morgana Musgrove, has spent a lifetime burning bridges, and her four adult children want nothing to do with her. But the love of her adult granddaughter, Jaqueline “Jaq” Walker, coupled with Morgana’s position of influence in Savannah’s society, ensure she maintains a firm grasp on her social relevance in their tight-knit community.

The image of Morgana’s world — colonial mansions lining cobblestone avenues languishing in the shade of weeping Spanish moss — conjures a familiar, Southern gothic type of “kingdom” in Savannah. As Green hones in on the diverse populations that comprise the city’s fabric, he reveals a different kind of “kingdom” by diving into Savannah’s homeless encampments. Morgana’s youngest son, Ransom Musgrove, has rejected society’s expectations and disappeared into the anonymity of living unhoused. The meat of Green’s story unfolds at the intersection of Ransom’s and Morgana’s worlds.

Sitting in the center of their crossroads is Jaq, the shining star of the family, the bridge that unites Morgana with her children and — through the movie Jaq is making for her film school application — ties a plethora of Savannah residents to each other. Jaq’s movie is “sort of a documentary and sort of fiction. It’s kind of a love letter to Savannah. All about the strange souls who inhabit this city,” and filming it puts her in contact with residents from all walks of life.

Jaq becomes concerned that one of her film subjects, “Stony,” is missing. Nobody has seen her since the night Jaq filmed her — the same night their mutual friend was murdered. Jaq believes the events are related and that the businessman accused of the murder knows Stony’s whereabouts. When Morgana sets out to prove the man’s innocence, a massive rift erupts between the two women.

In the hands of a lesser author, Morgana could have been an easy trope to hate. She’s an emotionally abusive boozer, a relic of bygone times who in her younger years was known to breathe “arabesques of gin into the room” and, after growing “tired of tormenting everyone else, then she would draw her youngest into her sights, and set to work on him.”

But Green doesn’t create one-dimensional characters. Instead, he constructs a multifaceted and layered woman who in her later years fiercely loves her offspring, displays enigmatic psychic tendencies and uses her privilege to uncover lost truths. Morgana, like her beloved Savannah, has evolved. The dignity she displays in meeting each day with her head held high, knowing she has created a significant amount of her family’s emotional trauma, serves as an apology conveyed not by word but by deed.

Still, her behavior is frequently over the top and draws the ire of her children. Upon learning a piece of art in her home is tainted from the 1859 slave auction, Morgana destroys the $30,000 family heirloom. Flawlessly encapsulating her duality, Green is ambiguous as to whether Morgana’s motivation is rooted in her shame or in outrage born from her love for her granddaughter who is Black.

Green presses his finger on the bruise of a modern conundrum facing many American families; what do they do with the legacy of slave ownership? Especially when the family now includes members who are racially diverse? Instead of offering an answer, he leaves the discomfort lying there festering and exposed.

As Morgana tries to prove the innocence of the man accused of murder, Jaq becomes convinced her film footage of Stony provides a clue about where she’s gone. In the video, Stony proclaims that she lives in a kingdom with the King’s soldiers, “the only free people to ever live in the state of Georgia.” In truth, Stony migrates between encampments. Jaq initially perceives Stony’s declaration as nonsense, but it takes on new meaning in the face of her continued absence.

Green takes special care with his portrayal of unhoused people in this narrative. They are not exploited to prove a point or provide social context. They are integral, individual members of society who are worthy of love and protection. Stony is an archaeologist. Ransom is licensed to practice law. They are veterans and musicians and people with backstories who have sought obscurity over security for a variety of complicated reasons.

In a final nod to Savannah’s complex past, Green resurrects bits of history about an unconfirmed forgotten “kingdom” — a secret encampment on an island deep in the Savannah River swamps, where enslaved men who fought for the British in the Revolutionary War lived free.

Now there are members of the community who don’t want this history unearthed. But why? The Musgrove family must decide if they are willing to unite with Morgana to figure it out — regardless of whose truth may be right.


FICTION

“The Kingdoms of Savannah”

by George Dawes Green

Celadon Books

304 pages, $27.99