With its setting in the humid and isolated Florida Keys of the mid-thirties as the islands and their inhabitants stood defenceless against an oncoming hurricane, Summertime, the novel by Vanessa LaFaye shines a light on a historical event that passed virtually unnoticed by the rest of the world despite its horrific consequences. Based on a true event with fictionalised characters drawn from very real tales of human survival and deaths, Summertime is a beautifully evocative and deeply moving account of a period of history that retains strong parallels with our present: Katrina, race relations and the way we treat veterans.
Lafaye is from Florida but had not heard of the tragedy herself until she began some research for another project. The real event that sparked the main theme of Summertime centres upon a group of damaged and dispirited veterans who were despatched to work on the Overseas Highway then abandoned by their government to perish in the hurricane which struck, all too ironically, on Labour Day 1935. One of the worst storms to ever hit the United States it resulted in the deaths of several hundred veterans out of the approximately 700 working there and many locals who lived permanently in the Keys were killed too. A category 5 hurricane, it was so severe that people caught in the open had their clothes sandblasted off their bodies by 185 mph winds.
(Memorial to the hurricane dead)
The veterans were living in three Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) camps in a work initiative designed to bring employment in the Depression Era to thousands of out of work veterans who had, earlier in the decade, marched on Washington DC in protest at their treatment. Denied adequate housing, cheated out of the bonus they had been promised and unable to find work after being feted upon their return as heroes, the men found themselves living in squalid conditions in a part of the world that was very different to the Florida the tourists of today visit. Their relegation to the bottom of the heap became apparent when the simple storm evacuation plan, where a train would be sent from Miami to evacuate the workers, went awry….
[Overseas Highway, wooden bridge between Key Largo and Mainland, April 9, 1929: Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Historic American Engineering Record (HAER)]
Against a backdrop of torpid heat, racial segregation and the dissonance that arises from living a life so closely intertwined with the African-American locals who raise your children and care for your home when you are a wealthier white resident of the Keys, the stories of the Heron Key families unfold. As the residents of a tiny community try to cope with their proximity to a camp full of disturbed and desperate men, they also have aspirations: to be respected as equals and thus develop their own authentic and independent identity. We see how the white residents hold all the power in defining what a relationship can be and the problems that arise when Henry, a returning African American veteran, will not allow himself to be defined. He will not be customary in his response to the situation he finds himself in when he becomes the main suspect after a white woman is attacked and left for dead. His is not the only life put at risk when the hurricane marries an attitude of ‘every man and woman for themselves’ with the social codes that are more rigidly enforced when both a storm and a violent crime threaten the status quo.
We spoke to Summertime’s author Vanessa LaFaye who told us about her book and its background:
(1) I am a huge fan of fiction and memoir set in Florida and the lesser known parts of the American South and am also aware of how the southern narrative can get stuck in a groove. However it is important to reexamine the events of the past especially in the context of what is happening now. How would you say Summertime straddles the old Southern narrative and the emerging one, created by the new generation of writers of which you are one?
Florida is weird because it is geographically southern but only on the fringe of the Southern cultural tradition. Although it shares a lot of values with states like Georgia and Alabama, it is so different in terms of history. The Civil War defined those states in a way not shared by FL. For one thing, most of the population consists of transplanted northerners, which has a huge impact on the culture. So I hesitate to call myself a Southern writer. I plan to write more books set in FL, but there other places that I’d like to write about in the future. For now, I’m catching up with the history of my home state, 35 years after departing!
(2) We’re all saturated in images of Florida or, at least, the standard Disney-beaches- holidays one. Your story takes us to visit another aspect of the state. How would you describe Florida to newcomers and what are your favourite places to visit? What do you wish we knew?
It’s great that British people come for the big attractions, but there is so much more. St Augustine in the north is the oldest town in the US, founded by the Spanish in 1565. Everyone should swim with wild manatees in Crystal River once in their lives. I am completely besotted with these amazing creatures. And Fort Jefferson, a short ferry ride from Key West, is Florida’s Alcatraz. Built during the Civil War to defend the Union, it’s an immense brick fortress that rises out of the ocean. Amongst its unwilling guests was Samuel Mudd, who treated John Wilkes Booth’s injured ankle after he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. And don’t get me started on the Everglades or the Native American history…see what I mean?
(3) Tell us about how you came to write Summertime and your growing awareness of the historical events that shape the novel- at what point did you grow a story in your mind?
I came to it through a series of accidents. I was discouraged by lack of success with other books (women’s fiction) and debilitated by my first experience of breast cancer when I stumbled on a newspaper story on a visit to my parents. This led me to the story of the hurricane and the veterans. I didn’t think that I would write another book, and certainly not one set in FL. But I felt compelled to dramatise the events because I thought that it was wrong that they had been forgotten. It’s just what happens sometimes. My life has taken several unexpected turns, and this one is especially welcome.
(4) Tell us a little about the progression of the novel and about how it might have changed from first draft to being ready for publication? What was your initial plan?
In deciding to depict the largest storm ever to strike America, I gave myself several challenges. The obvious one was creating the storm scenes in a way that would bring the power and terror of it to life, using only words. But first I needed a set of characters that the reader would relate to, before I put them in peril. Some of this was dictated by the facts, e.g. the rescue train crew. The rest came from my imagination and the survivor stories. I had lists of characters who lived and those who did not, and I assigned a fate to each of them. I drew heavily on the factual accounts for this. People really were found in the tops of key lime trees, and they were cut in half by flying debris. But none of the violence and destruction would make a gripping narrative without characters who we care about. So that was my top priority, along with honouring the memories of the people who went through it. The final draft mostly involved cutting. I had too many minor charaters who interrupted the flow. I probably deleted 7 of them before submitting the manuscript. It’s still a big cast, but it was unmanageable before.
(5) There’s that old adage “write what you know”. How much do you subscribe to this? Would you say that the writing is the process of knowing?
I can’t emphasise enough how important this is. People often assume that the research for the book took years. I didn’t, because I drew on a huge store of childhood memories that I had never used in fiction before. Although I didn’t grow up in the 1930s, I was very familiar with the sounds, smells, sights, and tastes of FL. It would have been much harder for me to write about Wisconsin, for example, or North Dakota. Once I move away from writing about FL, I will need to allow a lot more research time. But there is also the credibility factor. It’s easier to get away with showing the reality of a place if you come from there.
(6) A giant and lethal hurricane is a pretty daunting plot device. How hard was it to control this and avoid the possibility of it overshadowing the more nuanced side of the story, the hopes and thwarted dreams of Hilda Kincaid and her troubled intrapersonal relationship with her own body or the pace at which Dwayne works through his feelings about his baby (or not his baby as the case is?).
I wanted to make the storm into a character in its own right. The way we track them and describe their behaviour is similar to how we talk about wild beasts. And they almost seem to have personalities. But the storm is also the agent of change, for good and bad. By the end of the story, all the main characters have lost and gained something important to them. Writing those passages was emotionally exhausting because I wanted the reader to feel things in real time, without ever forgetting the personal stories of the characters.
(7) There’s the drama of Missy and Selma and the alligator which is one hell of an introduction and one which made me feel physically unwell with anxiety. Was this a difficult decision to open the novel with this? You control it beautifully by the way.
Thank you. I had actually written the opening before I decided to write this book. Likewise the scene where we first meet Hilda. When I stumbled on the hurricane story, I dug them out, and realised that they fitted into the landscape that I wanted to create. From this, I have learned never to throw away anything that I’ve written, because one never knows when it may be useful!
(8) I once heard Florida described as “always having a rich literary tradition- even if much of it has been tattooed across our felons necks” which was said in reply to the news that Hemingways ‘To Have and Have Not’ was the most famous novel set in Florida. What are your essential Florida reads?
I’m a big fan of Carl Hiassen. His books are funny and violent and full of great characters, but he also has a very important message: that the state is being ruined by uncontrolled development. Zora Neale Thurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ (referenced at the end of ‘Summertime’) is a classic of FL literature, and includes an amazing description of a hurricane.
(9) The way the veterans were treated has parallels with Vietnam, the Falklands in the UK and the Gulf situation now. Have we learned anything? The relative lack of knowledge of what happened in the Keys is a major divergence from the war hero rhetoric of most Western governments isn’t it?
I don’t think that we have learned much, although there are more assistance programs than in 1935. In general, Western societies do not know how to cope with damaged soldiers. The situation is far worse when the conflict lacks public support, as it did in WWI and the others you mention. It’s mainly left to charities to give them real help. They remind us of the reality of war, which makes us uncomfortable, so we prefer to label them as heroes and then forget. We like to think of Western society as civilised, highly evolved beyond such messy, primitive things as war. But as Henry says, civilisation is just a veneer.
(10) Summertime is saturated in atmosphere. I could hear the bellows of alligators, the sizzling noises that bugs make as the sun goes down. I could smell the mangroves, the salt and the acid of the key limes. I also heard music as I read it. Along with the eponymous song, what would be your soundtrack should the book be made into a movie? Let’s imagine a musical score!
I love this question because music is a big part of my life. I conduct a local community choir and sing in an acapella sextet. I would love to have a soundtrack for a novel. Imagine playing it while you read! Someone should do this. I chose ‘Summertime’ for the title because I wanted the reference to ‘Porgy and Bess’, which was first performed in 1935 and was the first opera written for an all-black cast. It’s such an atmospheric yet complex song. The words sound happy but the tune in the minor key says different. There are archives of folk music recorded in FL in 1930s, which would be important to include – the real voices of the people who kept those songs alive. Plus you would need a good sample of gospel songs, because church was the centre of the community. This was a time when popular music was being written for the radio, and there are some great songs from the period, like ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’, ‘Night and Day’, and of course, ‘Stormy Weather’.
(11) What’s next for you as an author?
I’m going to write about an epic love story and unsolved murder which took place in Key West in the 1920s. It’s another fascinating yet forgotten story from a place that a lot of people think they know.
All images (manatee, hurricane memorial, cemetery angel and author photo) courtesy of Vanessa LaFaye
Vanessa Lafaye was born in Tallahassee and raised in Tampa, Florida and her first visit to the UK was back in 1987. She now lives in Marlborough, Wiltshire, with her husband. You can follow her on Twitter and visit her writers den on Facebook.
Summertime is published in the UK by Orion Books.