Of the many historical narratives I’ve read, Season of the Witch is perhaps the most compulsively readable. More than just a dispassionate historical account, it seethes with the energy of San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s and is suffused by the evidence of the author’s own passion for his hometown, one whose tumult in the 1960s and 1970s served as a crucible to create its unique character and legacy.
Season of the Witch is a people’s history of San Francisco, told vibrantly through the ages through the quotes, written records, and oral accounts of the city’s many larger-than-life figures. San Francisco, more than any other city in the US, seemed to act as a haven for the dispossessed, the outcasts, and the dreamers, and it was replete with many community heroes – lawyers, doctors and public servants – who used their powers to help them.
In the 1960s, the city’s famed progressivism made it a beacon of hope for thousands of America’s lost children as they flocked to Haight-Ashbury in and after the Summer of Love, and it was up to San Franciscan heroes – faced by a callous municipal government – to help them as they came in their thousands, needing shelter, medical attention, and spiritual succour.
San Francisco became a haven for gays and lesbians long before it was even remotely kosher in the eyes of the rest of the nation or the world, who would band together with other communities and rights groups in the city to create a formidable progressive political movement – one that would eventually cascade throughout America in a rainbow wave.
But San Francisco could sometimes be too open, especially to dangerous ideas and people. The city was wracked by waves of terror during the racially motivated Zebra murders in the 1970s, bringing the city almost to its breaking point, as black and white started to eye each other with fear and distrust. Truly bizarre cults and movements arose, from the infamous SLA that brainwashed newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, to Jim Jones’ People’s Temple cult that ended in such horrific tragedy in Jonestown.
These events reverberated up and down the city and even affected City Hall, implicating even heroic and well-respected figures as George Moscone, Willie Brown, and Harvey Milk, all of whom were overly cozy with Jones because of his ability to come off as a bleeding-heart liberal, espousing at face value the principles of diversity and acceptance.
The tumult between the city’s liberal bona fides and the vestiges of its conservative Irish roots came to a head in the infamous episode when Dan White took a gun to Moscone and Milk, killing them both, and then escaped a long prison sentence, largely by dint of his aura of white-bread wholesomeness.
After this terrible climax, San Francisco was beaten back on its heels, but in true San Franciscan fashion, it recovered on the strengths of its ethos of acceptance and togetherness in the face of adversity – first through the vicarious euphoria of the 49ers’ celebrated victory against the Goliath-like Dallas Cowboys in the NFL playoffs, then as the city suffered through an AIDs epidemic, when whole communities pitched in to provide comfort and succour to young men who were perishing due to the then-mysterious disease.
Talbot’s narrative brings these events, and the people that lived them, to vivid and pugnacious life; his staccato prose leaping off the page like a broadsheet of the times, spinning a narrative of San Francisco and its heroes as possessing a number of virtues, chief of which is their willingness to embrace difference, a virtue displayed multifold during its many tribulations. Though Talbot has done a very creditable job of showing the many faces of San Francisco’s heroes – from Moscones’ inveterate womanising and the intimations that vote rigging by the People’s Temple helped in his mayoral victories, to concert promoter Bill Graham’s unscrupulous business practices. These are fully-formed people – heroes to some, villains to others; larger-than-life personalities seemingly driven by the city’s boundless aura.
For sure, the actual historical truth of things may not be so beautifully resonant; it is probably more staid, prosaic, and ambiguous. But Talbot has created a beautiful, haunting, unputdownable tale of San Francisco at its worst and best, one that deserves to be included in the hallowed annals of great historical writing.
I give this book: 4.5/5 footballs