With her new historical fiction, “The Last Train to Key West,” Chanel Cleeton revisits the hurricane of 1935, which has been called one of the strongest storms to hit the United States. She imagines the lives of three women, all unknown to each other at the start of the novel, but whose lives become connected through chance encounters.
As with all Cleeton’s books, the historical facts she includes in her stories are fascinating. Regarding the Florida Keys, for example, it’s amazing to consider how the original railroad was built from the mainland to Key West in the early 1900’s, across hundreds of miles of ocean, connecting bits of islands from Florida to Key West, which is closer to Cuba than to Florida. We get to see not only Key West before it became a tourist attraction, but we get to meet Helen, who was born and raised in Key West.
Helen, pregnant after many miscarriages, is in a very unhappy marriage. She’s been married since she was sixteen to Tom, an often-drunk fisherman who may also be involved in some shady business. He disappears for days and weeks, and when he’s gone, Helen is happy working her job as a waitress at Ruby’s restaurant. She dreams of his death because when he’s home, he’s an abusive bully. A mysterious man comes into the restaurant on weekends and sits at her table, ordering Key Lime pie, but he doesn’t talk to her. Ruby teases her about it, and when he saves Helen from some thugs who want to rob her of her pay, she realizes that there may be more to him than she had imagined.
We also meet Cuban-born Mirta, who recently married Anthony Cordero, who saves her family from horrible debts in Cuba. Her father had backed the wrong politician, and for years his business suffered greatly. When Cordero, a wealthy gangster from New York, decides he wants to marry Mirta, her father tells her that her sacrifice will save their family from a precarious financial situation. At the start of the story, we meet the newly married couple when they stop at Ruby’s restaurant to eat. Mirta is elegant and determined to succeed in her new marriage, and it seems that she will do whatever it takes to be a partner to her husband.
Elizabeth, who is from is from New York, is the last of the three first person narrators. We gradually learn from her narrative that she is from a very wealthy family, but her father’s investment firm made some unwise investments and began to lose money. The final blow was the Great Depression, and now her family has nothing. She is engaged, but we don’t know to whom. We also know she is on her way to Key West to find someone, but at the beginning, we don’t know who that is. Elizabeth is beautiful, and she loves flirting and living dangerously — that much we learn quickly. That’s why she’s alone on a train from New York City to Key West at a time when young women of society didn’t behave that way. She ends up at Ruby’s restaurant for coffee but can’t afford any food. Helen senses that Elizabeth is hungry and gives her some pie. Helen also offers information to Elizabeth about where she can stay safely on her journey — with Helen’s aunt who owns an inn on Upper Matecumbe Key, which is the town of Islamorada. A government agent she met on the train has offered to help her in her search.
We are also introduced to wretched government camps that housed veterans from World War I. After that war, veterans who had been promised bonus payments to be given in the future, assembled at the White House to demand that they be given their payments immediately. There were no jobs to be had because of the Depression, and they had served their country honorably. The government’s response was to offer the men jobs working on the highway that was being built in the Keys. They were housed on Windley and Matecumbe Keys, and more than a third of them were killed in the hurricane that tore through the islands. They were not evacuated in time, and in the story, Cleeton shares the many reasons that this tragedy happened.
Each of the three women come from very different places and cultures, but each is — in essence — searching for the same thing. Each woman wants love, security, and something worthwhile in her life. While Mirta and Elizabeth share a background of having known wealth, Mirta married Anthony at the behest of her father in order to save her family. We find out that Elizabeth has no one on whom she can rely. She must find her way to support both herself and her mother. Helen, on the other hand, only wants to find a safe place for her baby — one where she won’t have to worry that her abusive, violent husband will begin hurting their child as well as her.
The story, the characters, the setting, and the situation (a coming hurricane) all lead toward a thrilling climax. Six people, the three women and the men who have recently become a part of their lives, if only temporarily, must face a frightening natural disaster. Cleeton does a magnificent job describing the fury of the hurricane, down to the stinging sand moving at such a velocity that it causes bleeding on the skin. Roofs ripped from the houses, whole buildings flung around like paper, railroad cars tossed in the water — it’s all very vivid as we read what it was like.
Fans of Cleeton’s two previous novels, “Next Year in Havana” and “When We Left Cuba,” both perfect examples of her ability to present historical events, add fascinating characters, and make the whole picture come alive for us, will enjoy this novel. We can see and taste and smell the salt air on the beach as well as the stagnant rotting in the veterans’ camps. We see the beauty of the Keys, the worst side of nature, and the fortitude of women who must stand up for themselves.
First reviewed at Bookreporter.com.