The Last Train to Key West
The Last Train to Key West, Chanel Cleeton’s handsome and engrossing look into life in Key West, Florida, just before the infamous 1935 Labor Day Hurricane focuses in on three different women who end up on the island for disparate reasons, yet manage to make friendships and find romantic relationships that last a lifetime.
Helen Berner, nine months pregnant and nine years married to her fisherman husband Tom, is a portrait of misery. Tom is an abusive nightmare; though she grew up on the Keys she dreams of doing nothing but running from them and Tom, and of his death, as she waits tables at Ruby’s Cafe. She doesn’t expect to fall in love with John, the burly war veteran and her regular customer at the café.
Mirta Perez-Cordero was once a rich girl, her family influential in pre-Batista Cuba, but under the general’s regime they have lost their sway over the government. Mirta entered into an arranged marriage with a total stranger for security, citizenship and status while her family stayed behind in Cuba to face the country’s tumultuous future. Anthony is a stockbroker, and he plans to take Mitra to New York with him. But as the couple, in Key West for their honeymoon, struggles under the weight of their many differences, including something of a language barrier (he’s fluent in Italian, she’s fluent in Spanish, they meet in their sole shared language – English), she’s not sure they’ll ever find happiness and commonality, especially when she discovers a shocking truth about Anthony just as their relationship begins to heat up.
Elizabeth Preston meanwhile, is a girl of mystery. A college-aged New York native of high class stock with an engagement ring on her finger, she’s come to the Keys in search of a Great War veteran to whom she is very close – who is one of many former soldiers working backbreaking, abusive hours on the railroad project in tent cities in Lower Matecumbe Key. With little money to her name, she is on a shocking mission all by herself. On the way, she meets an insufferable man who’s immune to her charms but is willing to protect her from her the elements on her way to the camp – lucky her, he’s an FBI agent named Sam Watson.
All three women meet in the diner, and all three – through unexpected circumstances – will meet again in Lower Matecumbe, just as the Labor Day Hurricane bears down on them all. The hurricane will wash away the barriers between them, revealing surprising commonalities and new bonds as the novel comes to a surprising conclusion.
The Last Train to Key West is an absorbing, tense and well-crafted narrative with a lot of spirit to it. Each of the women – downtrodden but determined Helen, romantic Mitra, and gutsy Elizabeth – come off as distinct people with different desires and goals. The men in their lives are also distinct in their own ways, from steadfast John to cool-minded Anthony to rough-edged Sam. I liked the supporting characters as well, such as Helen’s no-nonsense Aunt Alice.
Each romance is different in its own special way – Mitra and Anthony’s relationship is all courtship, while Helen and John must battle nearly insurmountable odds to survive, let alone be in love. Sam and Elizabeth are the most traditional pair – and there’s something almost film noir about them both. The way the three women’s stories knit together is interesting and somewhat unexpected, though there are some clichéd plot twists (you’ll never guess when Helen’s baby is born!).
The Key West setting is portrayed with lush detail, and I liked the little bits of mid-Depression/pre World War II history we’re given as the novel progresses. The hurricane itself and the waste and horrors it wreaked upon the people living there are sensitively etched.
There is, however, little focus on the camps or the railroad itself; instead, mob antics and the hurricane center the narrative, though there are plenty of memorable train rides. Through John we visit the horrors that veterans faced while making these railroads happen, but there is little direct feeling for the hell that took place there.
But overall The Last Train to Key West works as a romance and a piece of women’s fiction, as well as a history of the Key West which existed during those fraught, lean years before the Second World War.