Newest review: The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton

By Ekta R. Garg

June 17, 2020

Genre: Historical fiction

Release date: June 16, 2020

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

Three women find themselves in the Florida Keys at major life decision points. As reports of an oncoming storm float around, the women will have to decide whether they can live with their choices. Author Chanel Cleeton digs into a fascinating true-life event with keen prose and distinct characters in The Last Train to Key West.

It’s the start of the Labor Day weekend, 1935, in Key West, but Helen Berner doesn’t have much to celebrate. Her fisherman husband, Tom, is either on his boat or drinking away what he earns. Helen’s learned not to complain. Tom makes sure she stays quiet, and if she ever forgets the bruises remind her.

In the past, Helen’s found ways to justify Tom’s behavior. Now she’s pregnant, and the baby is due within a few weeks. With motherhood descending on her, Helen finds it harder to convince herself she’s safe.

Mirta Perez has just arrived from Havana on the island with Anthony for their honeymoon. It should be a magical, romantic time…except that her wedding was a business transaction. The Cuban revolution of 1933 devastated her family; when Anthony asked Mirta’s father for her hand, Mirta agreed. Anthony got a wife, and her family got the funds needed to rebuild.

The flush of a new relationship is colored by Anthony’s profession. While he calls himself a businessman, Mirta knows he’s a gangster, albeit a handsome, well-dressed, rich one. She tries to reconcile that fact with the man who is attracted and attentive to her in surprising ways.

On the train down from New York, Elizabeth Preston arrives in Key West determined to save her family from ruin. She’s searching for the one person who can help her. His last letter carried a Key West postmark, and Elizabeth is convinced he’s in one of the veteran camps there.

The camps are supposed to give veterans of the Great War a chance to earn an honest living, but Elizabeth discovers they’re horrible places where the soldiers who fought to protect the country are shipped and forgotten. With the help of FBI agent Sam Watson, Elizabeth begins visiting the camps, keeping her eyes sharp for a familiar face.

All three women hear about the storm that so many Keys natives are sure will miss the islands. Weather experts can’t agree on where it will go. As it churns closer, Helen, Mirta, and Elizabeth must all make the same decision about the storm and themselves: should they stay, or should they leave?

Author Chanel Cleeton takes several intriguing pieces of history and fuses them seamlessly. She highlights people suffering during the Great Depression between the World Wars, emphasizing the quiet desperation so many felt. By adding the real-life veteran camps in Florida, Cleeton emphasizes a fact that still haunts this country today: veterans who are forgotten after they return from service. With the inclusion of an ambitious railroad project and a record-setting hurricane, Cleeton creates the perfect storm for Helen, Mirta, and Elizabeth and their challenges.

Cleeton lends to each woman unique qualities that make them stand out. Helen’s weary tolerance as an abused victim juxtaposes Mirta’s hyperawareness of her abrupt change in circumstances from single girl to married woman, and both balance Elizabeth’s idealistic resolve to find her loved one and bring him home. Cleeton builds into the story layers of conflicts and challenges, and the storm looms over all three of them as it does everyone else in the Keys.

In describing the storm and the aftermath, Cleeton captures the hurricane experience with precision. Those who have lived through hurricanes will find themselves nodding along with her descriptions. Those who haven’t experienced one of the magnified storms will get a good idea of what it’s like.

While Cleeton relies a little bit on serendipity to bring the three women together, their encounters feel organic. The surprise she saves for readers at the end is welcome and a true “aha!” moment. Readers will finish this one grinning with delight at how it all comes together, which is why I recommend they Bookmark The Last Train to Key West.

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