Wednesday, October 4, 2023

The Last Train to Key West provides a thrilling fictionalized look at the worst hurricane in U.S. history

Labor Day was a bad weekend in the Florida Keys in 1935. A Category 5 hurricane that is still considered the strongest hurricane in U.S. history killed more than 400 people, including a lot of World War I vets living there in cheap camps while they built a highway extension and a rail line.

Author Chanel Cleeton took what has faded as an historical footnote and built a compelling romance-action work of historical fiction in 2020's The Last Train to Key West.

Cleeton, a Cuban-American, has a handful of similar novels that tend to explore themes of family, love, travel, identity - usually around the Cuban-American experience - and often with military and international subplots.

In "Key West," blonde Helen Berner is in a dead-end abusive marriage in the titular town back in 1935, when the region had been hit hard by the Depression. Newlyweds Mirta and Anthony enter the diner where she works, fresh off the boat from Cuba and planning to travel to New York. Meanwhile, 23-year-old Elizabeth Preston is on her way the other direction, from New York to the Keys. The paths of these characters - and several others - meet up just as the hurricane begins and any escape routes from the Keys are quickly closing.

Murder, estrangement and deceit, rescues, mass casualties, the mob, the FBI, the military, and of course races against the hurricane make this a very breezy summer beach read, with heaping helpings of suspense, a decent amount of substance, and pretty well fleshed-out characters. There are a lot of twists, and the historical setting helps make it interesting since it made me feel like I was learning something rather than just having a semi-trashy good time. 

I don't know that I'll read any of Cleeton's other novels, but Reese Witherspoon was definitely onto something when she included this one in her book club.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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