DICKINSON - The shy librarian who stood strong against a book ban sat at dinner next to the bestselling author who wrote it.
Kathy Jo Cline, Beulah school librarian, said she was surprised to be given the seat next to John Berendt, author of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," whose famous book was banned at her school for four days in January until the Beulah School Board reversed itself.
Berendt followed every word of the unfolding drama, which ended with three Beulah high school girls restoring the book to its place on the library shelf in an emotional moment with the librarian.
He took up an editorial pen to weigh in in North Dakota newspapers, gave interviews to reporters and sent each of the girls a signed copy.
"He just thanked me for what I did. I was so incredibly nervous to meet him," Cline said. "It means a whole lot more that he was here. I never expected that."
Berendt said he didn't hesitate when invited to speak at this year's North Dakota Library Association annual meeting in Dickinson.
A long trip from New York, true. But it was a chance to put faces on the people who stood against book banning and to be part of the saga's final chapter. What writer could resist.
The 200 librarians at the Thursday banquet ate up Berendt's every word, while eating succulent chunks of deep fried turkey, a Dickinson specialty.
The night validated their core purpose as librarians - to promote and defend the right to read.
Berendt told them he was "absolutely delighted" to wake up one morning and over a cup of coffee, read on the Internet that "'Midnight' had been banned in someplace called Beulah, North Dakota."
So much had happened with the book since it was published in 1994.
It had been made into a movie by Clint Eastwood. It had been translated into 26 languages, been on the New York Times bestseller list for months, sold millions of copies and been adapted to high school and university literature classes.
Banned it had never been.
"I found myself in good company," he said, reading a list of familiar classics, including the dictionary for containing 39 objectionable words that have been banned over time.
From the onset, "I had a feeling that this unfortunate person (the Beulah parent who protested the book) was going to lose," he said.
He said he was confounded by the parent's objection that his book contained graphic pornography.
It doesn't describe genitalia and the two sex scenes in it are so mild that Gore Vidal, a giant in contemporary literature, "told me it as was if I'd turned my back instead of watching," Berendt said.
Better parents tell a child "Save it for later," if a book is too mature for them, he said. At the very least, parents should use the opportunity to explain why a book goes against their values.
Most alarming was that none of the school board - in voting to ban the book and then voting to "un-ban" it - had actually read the book, he said.
"The Beulah episode was a 'teaching moment.' It showed the impact of censorship of books and ideas and the relationship to the rights we enjoy. The basic issue I see here is the control of ideas and people," he said.
He spent about half his time at the speaking lectern describing the similar effects of what's called the "Patriot Act," that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on New York.
"Pay attention to the quiet censorship that's going on under the Patriot Act," he told them.
Afterward, in a buzz of anticipation, librarians stood in line to have Berendt sign their library's or their personal copy of "Midnight."
Pat Hastings, of the Grand Forks Public Library, said she had followed the controversy and was thrilled to meet the book author.
Berendt, relaxing for a few minutes on a couch in the convention center lobby, said he's working on his third book, this one set in New Orleans, but not about Hurricane Katrina.
"Midnight," set in Savannah, Ga., is a story of murder and Southern characters and is both true and fiction. "It took me so long to write. I'm so careful," Berendt said.
He said he enjoyed his opportunity to preach to the choir - writer to librarian - about censorship in a place where the public outcry against the banning impressed him so much. "I thought the public was pretty cool," he said.
"This was part of the whole experience of the banning. It was fun," Berendt said. "It's all been good, including the banning. I don't mind a skirmish."
(Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 701-748-5511, or firstname.lastname@example.org.)