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Resilience In the Eye Of The Storm In 'Last Train to Key West'

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Chanel Cleeton/Penguin Random House
Chanel Cleeton is the author of the Sundial September Book Club title The Last Train to Key West.

"The Last Train to Key West" takes readers on a journey through the Florida Keys during the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, with the stories of Helen, Elizabeth and Mirta.

The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 remains the strongest storm to ever hit the United States. It devastated the Florida Keys, leaving an estimated 400 people dead and causing millions of dollars in damages. It's hard to imagine the devastation being the setting for a historical romance novel, but author Chanel Cleeton was inspired to shed light on a part of history she hadn't heard much about. She visited the Keys in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma for research on her latest book, "The Last Train to Key West."

“I mean so much of the terrain of the Keys makes it very difficult when you’re talking about evacuation or going to higher ground,” she said to Luis Hernandez on Sundial. “I certainly saw the rebuilding effort that was going on then and it really put into perspective the challenge of rebuilding after the ’35 storm, thinking about the technology they had then versus what we have now.”

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Cleeton’s novel tells the stories of Helen, a waitress in Key West in an abusive relationship with her husband. Mirta, a Cuban exile on her honeymoon in the Keys with her husband, a gangster from New York. And Elizabeth, who’s escaping her
fiancé in New York (also a gangster) and searching for her brother.

She weaves their stories together and also shines a light on the story of World War I veterans, many of whom lost their lives during the 1935 storm. "The Last Train to Key West" was Sundial’s Book Club Selection for September, you can read an excerpt of our conversation below.

WLRN: Your book takes place in the Great Depression. But the characters experienced it from Havana, New York, in Key West. How did the women's experiences in each of these cities, during the Great Depression, give a unique insight? You know, for the reader about those characters.

CLEETON: Well, I think there are a few different things that I really took away about the Great Depression. I think one was just the global nature and how it affected people. So understanding that meant that being in Cuba was still very much affected by the economic unrest in the United States.

And I think, you know, we talk about globalism so much nowadays, but it's always interesting to be able to look back in history and see those kind of global international influences. So that was definitely one part of it. I also think it really spoke to the insecurity of the women in terms of financial insecurity, physical insecurity and the struggles they faced in finding a place for themselves in this ever changing and very volatile world that they were in.

And that was definitely something as I was researching and going through the historical record, you see that marriage rates went way down. And for many women, that was a source of great security. And there was quite a bit of public opinion saying that women shouldn't be taking jobs from men. And so if you were a single woman, you had that struggle of needing to support yourself but society saying that that men should be filling those jobs since there was such a lack of them.

So it is things like that that really gave me a sense of the time period and what it must have been like for a woman to be living and trying to take care of herself in that time period.

The story takes place in the Keys, as I said, during the Depression era. But it happens to take place during the week of the Labor Day hurricane. One of the worst hurricanes to hit the United States. What was your interest in this event? Why that hurricane?

It really was the Labor Day hurricane that kind of sparked my interest in writing this book. And I just came across it, I think it was during Hurricane Irma coverage. There was a mention of some of the strongest and deadliest storms to hit the United States.

And I grew up in Florida, I was educated in Florida for a large part of my formative years. And it was a storm I had never heard of. And I was really surprised, to have been in the state and for the impact it had on the state to be kind of forgotten to some extent.

And so I was really intrigued when I first heard about it. And then when I heard of the plight of the World War I veterans who were down there working in the camps, building the Overseas Highway. And, I had always sort of thought of the World War I veterans as being this generation that was venerated for their military service and then to see that they weren't actually treated that way and the aftermath, was also really illuminating for me.

So I think there were just so many fascinating intersections with that. And also Henry Flagler's legendary Overseas Railroad and the connections to Cuba. I started to get this little spark and I knew it was an idea I wanted to pursue.

How much of you is in your characters? Are you in any of those characters?

I think as a writer, probably there's a piece of me in almost all of my characters. I find that that really helps me to have something to grab onto you. And when I'm trying to get inside their heads and understand the stories.

With Elizabeth in particular, she was just a really fun character to write. When I'm writing heavier historical fiction, I really like to kind of balance the narratives out with little bits of levity. And she had such an outspoken kind of sassy character.

If you've read my books before, you know that I'm a little bit drawn to that. She kind of reminded me of Beatrice in "When We Left Cuba." And I really like to explore kind of that power of femininity and, you know, her just sort of go get her attitude that she has.

And so you see it in her flirtation on the train and the fact that she's come all the way down on Henry Flagler's Overseas Railroad from New York at this young age to sort of solve some of the problems that her family is facing.

So I was really drawn to her gumption and how she sort of tackles the world.

And then, Helen, I think she has such a poignant story for me. I mean, I mentioned that she's the one that kind of came to me first and whose voice was just the loudest in my head. And I really feel like at the end of the day, she was the heart of the book and her experiences and what comes out after the storm.

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Chris knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.