Monday, June 22, 2020

The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton

I'll confess I've wanted to visit Key West for many years, and I've yet to get there. When I saw this novel set in Key West in the 1930's, I had to pick it up. Add to the plot a devastating hurricane over Labor Day Weekend, 1935, and I grabbed a copy to read on my last few days of a short staycation. 

The plot revolves around three women who are in Key West and the surrounding area over the Labor Day Weekend. It's 1935, and the southern most tip of Florida is a pretty rough place--not the tourist destination it is today. The Florida East Coast Railway had finally been built to bring passengers all the way to Key West. World War One vets were living in pretty miserable camps while they worked on building and extending the railroad. No one wanted to deal with vets returning from the Great War that had left them damaged with PTSD; it was easy to ship them down to Florida and forget about them. Wow. Do we never learn from past mistakes?! 

Anyhow. Three women: Helen, Elizabeth, and Mirta are all in the Keys this fateful weekend. Helen lives there; she's 9 months pregnant, living with an abusive husband, and working as a waitress in the only cafe around. Elizabeth has fled New York City and come to Florida looking for her brother, who may be at one of the veteran camps. She's got a secret or two. And Mirta has arrived from Cuba with her new husband, handsome Anthony. Mirta married Anthony so her family would be safe in Cuba from the changing leadership. They are on their honeymoon before traveling to Anthony's home in New York City. 

The paths of all three women criss-cross over the fateful few days they are trapped in Key West as the hurricane comes barreling down. The weather officials claim it will miss them; the locals, who know better, are getting nervous seeing the ominous signs that the terrible storm is advancing. Who will survive? Will each woman find the answers they are seeking? 

The plot moved along fairly quickly. I didn't have trouble following each woman's story; chapters have each woman's name, so you know which one you're following. Each story is compelling; I found Helen's tale of matrimonial abuse and her desire to escape the most interesting. The hurricane left death and destruction that was horrible. I looked at a few stories on the actual hurricane of 1935 and yes, it was as bad as it is portrayed in the novel. While the hurricane literally wiped clean the islands that make up the Keys, it also wiped clean the lives of these three women, and created new chances for each. I don't want to give much away, so I'll stop there. There aren't any huge surprises, but the puzzle pieces all fit together in an interesting way, and each woman is connected to each other by more than geography. 

There are book club discussion questions in the back of the book for those who want to read and discuss. I would definitely like to read Chanel Cleeton's two other books: 

I'm always intrigued by books set in the 1920's and 1930's--in between the two world wars. 

Definitely a book I'd recommend if you're traveling to Florida (maybe in 2021?). I didn't see any non-fiction books about the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 but I'd love to know more about it beyond newspaper articles revisiting the event. 

Rating: 4/6 for a historical novel about three women at definitive crossroads in their lives; a deadly hurricane that forces them each to make choices, and the ever present and unresolved issue of returning veterans and failure of our government to honor and protect them as they return home. 

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio. 

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