If you love reading and you love traveling then the best symbiotic relationship of the two is when you read a book that is set in a place where you’ve visited. It’s as if you’ve become a character in the novel. It first happened to me at the age of 16 in the summer of 1978 when I spent the summer in London and weekends saw my family exploring the countryside of England. I had just discovered a huge library of Agatha Christie novels in our rented flat. So when we journeyed to the town of Mevagissey in Cornwall I was Miss Marple and when we toured the college town of Oxford I was just behind the well turned out detective in Hercule Poirot. The knowledge of one made the knowledge and experience of the other so much the better.
The second time literature intersected with my travels was May of 2006 when I was off with five girlfriends for a Paris stay. I had read Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code when it was first published in 2003 and then reread it in advance of our trip to the City of Lights. It was also there in Paris in May that the movie was being released to European audiences. I spent the morning looking at the most beautiful stained glass of St. Sulpice church and imagining the Rose Line as it intersected key monuments throughout the city – both mentioned in the novel – and then I was standing in line to watch the movie.
So imagine my delight when I spent two weeks in the tide-governed lands of South Carolina and found myself bicycling through neighborhoods where hometown author Pat Conroy based many of his stories including The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini, and Beach Music. And, coincidentally, a large part of Beach Music takes place in Rome where I had just traveled in September, eight months earlier. I knew exactly where Piazza del Popolo, Campo de’Fiori, and the Janiculum were located having eaten in the first two and hiked the third one in very inappropriate shoes I must say.
The 300-year-old town of Beaufort, South Carolina, was my home base for this vacation. It was also the location for the movie The Big Chill (1983) with the exquisite Tidalholm house in the Old Point neighborhood as its cinematic centerpiece and across the street from it is a large field where Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Jeff Goldblum and others were filmed playing their touch football game (actually I think Glenn Close stayed behind in the scene to cook and clean up). The Beaufort bridge that I would drive over to get to yoga class and the market was where Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump would run across, and the dense thicket of Hunting Island, just a short drive from the bridge and where I took my sons to the beach, was where the Vietnam scenes of Forrest Gump were filmed. And on the way home from the beach my older son, in a moment of great observation, spotted the Gay Fish Company on St. Helena’s Island and remembered it as the setting of the Bubba Gump fish boat scenes.
We continued our Forrest Gump scene sightings a few mornings later on a visit to nearby Savannah, Georgia, where my other son got to stand right where Forrest’s iconic bus bench stood at the edge of Chippewa Square. The oak branches still drape lazily overhead and the Spanish moss still gives off the aura of the quintessential Southern town of Greenbow, Alabama. If only we had a box of chocolates!
Perhaps Savannah’s best literary and movie connection is the story about the murder of Danny Hansford, a local male prostitute, by well respected antiques dealer Jim Williams. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a non-fiction accounting of the crime written by John Berendt in 1994, gives us a look not only into the crime but the oddities and characters of the 1980’s Southern Gothic party scene of Savannah. Kevin Spacey starred as Jim Williams in the 1997 movie produced by Clint Eastwood. And, in my opinion, one of the strangest literature-meets-real-life-location-phenomena resulted from the picture of the Bird Girl sculpture that is featured on the front cover of Berendt’s book. An entire category of tourist merchandise has been created from this image including replicas in all sizes of the statue, t-shirts, and tea towels. The original bronze sculpture was created in 1936 by Sylvia Shaw Judson in Lake Forest, Illinois. Judson made four copies of the statue with one of them being purchased for a family plot in the Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah. It was photographer Jack Leigh who shot the statue as an idea for the book’s cover. Whereas Bird Girl is a visual symbol of the book and film, visitors can tour the well preserved Mercer-Williams House, at the edge of Monterey Square in Savannah for a look at the scene of the crime.
It is difficult to mention Savannah without mentioning her Lowcountry rival, Charleston. The well-preserved historic district and plethora of great restaurants take on greater meaning when you can walk the beautiful streets south of Broad that are mentioned in Pat Conroy’s novel South of Broad. Published in 2009, the story follows Leopold Bloom King from a troubled youth into adulthood and his most unique group of friends all who are fighting their own battles and demons. It is my favorite of all the Conroy books that I’ve read and as of today one of the top five novels I’ve ever read. Plot heavy with excellent character descriptions and dialogue, the streets south of Broad are more than the setting. Tradd, King, Meeting, Bay, and Battery streets become characters of their own and face the hurricane of 1986 toward the end of the novel just as boldly as do Leo, Sheba, Trevor, Niles and Starla.
A recent overnight stay at the Victorian 2 Meeting Street Inn had me back in the pages of the novel remembering the characters while trying not to wither in the record breaking heat and humidity. A drive past the Citadel and over the Ashley River put me back into the book at pivotal scenes featuring both.
Traveling to a new place is always an interesting experience with sights, sounds, tastes, and smells that differ from one’s hometown, but having read a story or watched a film that is set in that new place can give an altogether higher connection to that place. It’s as if you’d visited before and you can’t help but get a slight whiff of déjà vu. I suppose travel and literary buffs could plan their next trip based purely upon the titles that stand crowded along their home’s book shelves. If that’s the case I know where I want my next trip to be – the tiny island of Guernsey in the English Channel which is the setting of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer. Yes, it’s a mouth full! But what a wonderfully sweet and sentimental post World War II story (and Netflix movie!!) it is.