Desert Isle Keeper
The Last Train to Key West
I became a huge fan of Chanel Cleeton’s writing in late 2018 when I picked up a copy of Next Year in Havana. Ever since then, I’ve kept an eye out for her new releases and even purchased a few of her backlist titles. Her writing is deep and affecting, never shying away from tough topics but also managing to infuse some moments of joy into even the bleakest of stories. Her latest novel, The Last Train to Key West, serves as a prime example of everything I’ve come to love about this author’s work.
This is the story of three very different women whose lives intersect on Labor Day weekend in in 1935 as a hurricane is bearing down on Key West. Each of them is grappling with an enormous change in her life, and I loved watching them come to a deeper understanding of how they fit into the world. Their stories have little in common with one another, but their struggles are so easy to relate to, even if you’ve never walked in their shoes.
Helen has lived her whole life in Key West, and though she sometimes dreams of something more than waiting tables in a diner and doing her best to stave off her husband’s volatile rages, she has never really thought she could do much to affect her own existence. But after a particularly brutal beating, Helen knows she has to make a change, if not for herself, then for the safety of her unborn child. So, with the help of a veteran of the Great War, a man with a kind and gentle spirit with secrets of his own to hide, Helen sets off on a journey that will change her life in unimaginable ways.
For Mirta, a young bride on her honeymoon, life has been a series of upheavals. The Cuban Revolution of 1933 left her once wealthy family in difficult circumstances, and Mirta consented to marry a stranger in hopes of offering those she loves a better life. Unfortunately, her new husband seems to be involved in some rather shady business dealings, and Mirta has begun to once again fear for her safety. She hopes her honeymoon will provide her the opportunity to really get to know the stranger she’s just married, but it soon becomes clear some of his business associates mean the newlyweds harm.
Elizabeth is a disgraced socialite, desperate to locate the brother who went missing after World War I ended. She’s heard rumors of the horrible living conditions many veterans are forced to endure in the camps not far from Key West, so she boards a train and travels across the country to find him. What she finds when she sets foot in the first of the three camps she learns about will forever change her views of the United States government and those whom the system has turned its back on.
The lives of Helen, Mirta, and Elizabeth collide as people up and down the Florida coast do their best to prepare for the massive hurricane that will soon be upon them. Survival isn’t a sure thing, but our three heroines are unwilling to give up in the face of hardship. Each is fighting for someone or something she loves deeply, and this novel is a testament to the true power of love in all its many forms.
I had no idea how horribly soldiers were treated after returning home from fighting overseas at the end of the First World War. Many men weren’t paid the money they were owed, and the government sent them to Key West in an attempt to keep them out of the public eye. This is not a piece of history I was taught in school, so this novel opened my eyes, prompting me to do more research into this topic. This is what I love most about historical fiction, the ability to learn things I never knew in an enjoyable and meaningful way.
I wouldn’t classify this novel as a romance. Each woman does find love at the end, but the romantic elements of the plot take a bit of a back seat to the social and political turmoil of the day, not to mention the impending danger of the hurricane. Even so, I think romance lovers will find quite a bit of fulfillment here as long as quieter, more understated love stories aren’t a problem for you.
To say this novel was sometimes hard to read would be a massive understatement. There’s so much pain and heartache contained in these pages, but it’s a book I want everyone to pick up just the same. It’s a story that will transport you to another time and place, a story that will teach you some difficult truths even as it delights and entertains you. The characters feel incredibly authentic and their stories are compelling enough to keep you reading even though the subject matter will sometimes make you uncomfortable.