The Last Train to Key West

Before I left for Florida I looked for Key West-themed books at my library and this novel arrived. The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton was a speedy read, telling the tales of three women who are all based in or headed to Key West. The story takes place in 1935 and the Depression has hurt all of them. Helen is pregnant and near her due date. She lives with a physically abusive husband and fantasizes about his death. Mirta is a fashionable Cuban, recently married to a gangster (or as good as) whom she hardly knows and honeymooning in the Keys. Elizabeth is both in search of her brother as well as on the run from her fiancé. The cover image depicts Mirta.

Each chapter is told in the first person, alternating from woman to woman, so three separate stories are told at first yet they eventually weave together. A hurricane tears through the Keys–based on the real-life Labor Day hurricane of 1935–which leads to an evacuation and the women cross paths as they flee. The novel was heavy in dialogue, yet I found it annoying that Cleeson ended many passages with interruptions like:

“I’m fine, I–“

“It’s too early. I’m not prepared, I–“

Just let these characters complete their thoughts, please. Another eye-roller were the numerous occasions where characters replied with a simple “I don’t know.”. Surely the author had the power to make her characters seem less ignorant.

Helen gives birth during the hurricane, yet Cleeton made the labour and birth seem instantaneous. If only all first-time mothers could have their babies with as much ease as Helen. Her water broke and like a log-flume ride Whoosh! and Lucy was born. I didn’t buy the attraction that grew between Helen and John, or between Elizabeth and Sam. Spoiler alert in the revelations that John and Elizabeth are siblings, and that Mirta kills Helen’s husband Tom. At one moment John has barely anything to say to Helen, and then once he finds out that she is suddenly widowed, he wants to spend the rest of his life with her and raise her newborn.

The Keys scenery was pleasant to read about since I finished the novel shortly after my Florida vacation. The title The Last Train to Key West refers to the damage to the railroad by the hurricane which resulted in it never being rebuilt. Cleeton provided a helpful bibliography of titles that dealt specifically with this deadly storm, and I will seek them via interloan.

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