When I was growing up, my family drove the long drive from Savannah, Georgia to Key Largo, Florida nearly every summer of my childhood for vacation. I began snorkeling at the age of six, began SCUBA diving as soon as I could carry my own gear (age 12), camped and crabbed and climbed coconut palms at Pennekamp state park, met the man who became my husband at a research lab in Key Largo, and SCUBA dived at night up and down the Keys: all in the summer in Florida. Later, my husband and I lived in Naples, Florida, had a baby there, then moved up the coast to Tampa, Florida, and had another baby while my husband earned his graduate degree.
After a lifetime of vacations and eight years as a resident, I’ve got a lot of memories in Florida.
So I was surprised when I arrived in my reading journey and read book after book — without finding a Florida that resonated with my experiences there. I read a couple of books many years ago, Summer Lightning and Mangrove Squeeze, that I identified with when I read them, but this time I read six or seven books with only elusive glimpses here and there of the Florida I know. I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised. Florida is a unique place: full of transients and tourists, characters and curiosities, and those who were born and raised there — those who are native — will know a different Florida than I do.
I did find some gems though, and of the recent novels I read for Andrea Reads America, these are the three I felt were the best written, and are most representative of the landscape, history, and characters of Florida.
Novel: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Author: Zora Neale Hurston, raised Eatonville, FL
Setting: Eatonville, Jacksonville, and the Everglades
Categories: African American Fiction, Literary Fiction
Not so much a Florida novel as a human novel, and particularly a human novel about what it means to love, Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie, an African-American woman who was raised by her ex-slave grandmother, and who wanted life and living, not riches and sitting idle on a porch. It is a deeply moving novel about love and what makes it real, about damning the “shoulds,” and about how everyone needs something different in life to make them feel alive.
Janie was married for the first time at the age of 13, after standing under a pear tree in spring and thinking love would be like the buzzing and blossoming she that moved her there. Her grandmother saw danger in that romanticism and married her off to an old man with land and a porch where Janie could be idle. To her grandmother, a former slave, a life of sitting was a life to aspire toward. To Janie, a life of being still was like death.
Janie ran off with a man who wooed her by the side of the road and was disappointed once again by a boring, constrained life of wifely duties.
It wasn’t until her third husband that Janie came alive. She found her pear tree in Tea Cake, a happy, free, life-loving musician. Though nobody understood, though everyone warned, “He’s beneath you, Janie,” she did not care because she had found her version of love. Janie was happier wearing overalls and picking beans in the Everglades muck with Tea Cake than she had ever been wearing proper clothing and sitting on the porch, forbidden from the men’s talk and men’s games.
What I love about this novel is that it show’s what it is like to feel deadened by what everyone else thinks should be, and feeling alive by doing all the things others warn against. Janie is earthy and real; she doesn’t care about being elevated. She wants to romp and play. She wants to live.
Novel: A Land Remembered
Author: Patrick D. Smith, Florida resident
Setting: 1850s-1860s central Florida
Categories: Historical Fiction, Pioneer Fiction
Set during the American Civil War, A Land Remembered begins in 1858 with Tobias MacIvey moving south from Georgia to Florida to get away from the fighting. The war pushed them further and further south, into the scrub, plains, and swamplands of interior Florida.
A Land Remembered is a frontier novel, complete with near starvation, being bullied by soldiers, wagons in wilderness, hard characters, racial tensions (though not as many as I’d expect), and gathering, herding, and driving cattle. It tells the story of a family who struggle so hard on the harsh land that it takes years to save enough money to buy a simple cook tool: a cast iron Dutch oven. They try hunting gators for the hide, they try chasing wild cattle out of bogs. They scrape, and trade, and help others, and are helped. It reminded me of both Little House on the Prairie and Lonesome Dove, though I didn’t find the characters in A Land Remembered to be as compelling or loveable as in those books.
The descriptions of interior Florida, though — they took me back to our years there. This simple passage resonated with me:
A fallen cypress limb to the left of the flat was covered solidly with turtles, and at the sound of approaching footsteps, two rolled over sideways and splashed into the water.
Novel: Skinny Dip
Author: Carl Hiaasen, Florida native
Setting: south Florida (Miami, Stiltsville, Everglades)
Categories: Humor, Crime Fiction
Set in south Florida in the 1990s, Skinny Dip is a fun and funny tale about a woman, Joey, who is thrown off a cruise ship by her loser husband, Chaz. Joey survives by hanging onto a drifting bale of Jamaican marijuana and is rescued by a six-time-divorcee ex-cop, Mick, who is retired in his early 50s and lives alone on an island off the coast of Miami.
The entire book consists of Joey and Mick trying to screw with Joey’s murder-attempting husband, Chaz. They sneak into his house and leave ghostly reminders of Joey, they call, they attempt blackmail. The book is not about finding a murderer, it’s about messing with him. I love this premise. I have never seen this done before, and it is fresh and funny.
The characters in Skinny Dip, as quirky as they are, are entirely believable for south Florida: the golf-loving, crooked biologist husband who will gladly be paid off to falsify environmental data; the giant “ape man” body guard who steals pain med patches from old folks in convalescent homes, the ex-cop who lives on an island, and the midwestern investigator who just wants to escape the Florida heat (and madness) and move back home to Minnesota.
But the thing I really loved about this book, and about Carl Hiaasen, is that he doesn’t just deliver oddball south Florida characters. He also uncovers the corruption that underlies the destruction of south Florida’s unique ecosystem — the primordial Everglades, which are being strangled by people like the tomato tycoon in this story. Hiaasen, as a native Floridian, has watched this ravaging happen over his lifetime, and he is not shy about weaving it into his stories, much to my delight.
For Further Reading in Florida
Books I’ve read and recommend:
Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel
Surface Tension by Christine Kling
Mangrove Squeeze by Laurence Shames
Summer Lightning by Judith Richards
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen
Killing Mr. Watson by Peter Matthiessen
Tampa by Alissa Nutting
The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.