[Note from Frolic: We are so excited to have author Chanel Cleeton guest posting on the site today! She’s sharing the inspiration behind her new book. Take it away, Chanel!]
I first came across the inspiration for my new book, The Last Train to Key West, back in 2017 when I was reading hurricane coverage and I learned about a storm I had never heard of before—the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. What initially caught my attention besides the devastation that the storm wrought and the infamous Overseas Railroad that helped connect the United States and Cuba, was the story of the struggling World War I veterans who had been sent down to the Keys to build the Overseas Highway. One of my favorite parts of writing historical fiction is learning about historical events, and considering I grew up in Florida and the hurricane had such a devastating impact, I was surprised I’d never heard of it before. The more I thought about it, I knew it was a story I wanted to tell.
As I started researching the book and studying the time period, I began to think of the characters who would inhabit the pages. Often when I write a book, I have a kernel of an idea that has taken hold of me and won’t let go, and then the world of the novel begins to take shape. I am most often inspired by the stories of ordinary women living through extraordinary events, and with The Last Train to Key West I wanted to explore three women who come from different backgrounds whose lives and experiences converge in the Florida Keys in 1935. As with all of my books, once I knew who those characters would be, they really took over the story for me, their voices in my head shaping the direction of the novel.
Readers of my first two historical fiction books, Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba, will recognize Mirta Perez, Beatriz and Elisa’s aunt, who comes to Key West on her honeymoon after an arranged marriage in Havana to a mysterious stranger. When the novel opens in 1935, the Perez family has just been through a major upheaval in the Cuban Revolution of 1933, an event I researched while working on Next Year in Havana, but learned a great deal more about while writing The Last Train to Key West. It was another piece of my family’s history that I wasn’t aware of, and Mirta’s storyline gave me a better perspective on the ongoing turmoil so many Cubans faced in such a short time period.
While I was inspired by the connections that arose between the United States and Cuba thanks to the ease of travel between the two, largely in part because of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad, the veterans’ camps stuck with me, and I knew that the story of the Great Depression’s effect on my characters’ lives as well as the plight of the World War I veterans would influence their stories. One of heroines, Elizabeth Preston, arrives in Key West after traveling down from New York City on the Overseas Railroad. Elizabeth’s family has lost nearly everything as a result of the crash on Wall Street and she journeys to the Keys in search of the one person she thinks can help her escape her dire situation. Her quest takes her through the veterans’ camps as she sees the horrific conditions in which the men have been living.
Helen Berner, a waitress in Key West, is familiar with the many camp workers who visit Key West on their weekends off and end up in the restaurant where she works. Married to an abusive man, Helen yearns to escape, and her story is one of courage and hope that deeply resonated with me. Her path crosses with that of one of her restaurant customers, a veteran who has been down in the Keys working on the Overseas Highway who is searching for his own form of peace.
All three of my heroines are women trying to find their place in a society in an often-unforgiving time. Their lives intersect in unexpected ways, and while they come from distinct backgrounds, they’re all fighting for their futures. Their stories moved me and inspired me as a writer, and I can’t wait to share their journey with all of you.
About the Author:
Chanel Cleeton is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba. Originally from Florida, Chanel grew up on stories of her family’s exodus from Cuba following the events of the Cuban Revolution. Her passion for politics and history continued during her years spent studying in England where she earned a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Richmond, The American International University in London and a master’s degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics & Political Science. Chanel also received her Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina School of Law. She loves to travel and has lived in the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia.
The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton, out June 16!
On Key West—located just 90 miles from Cuba, and 130 miles from Miami—three women are brought together by Flagler’s Railroad. A marvel of early 20th Century ingenuity and ambition, this feat of engineering brought tourism to the island once isolated from the mainland of the United States.
Helen Berner, pregnant and living in a run-down shack, serves tourists and locals coffee and key lime pie in a diner every day—but is trapped in an abusive marriage and yearns to escape what she once thought of as paradise.
Mirta Perez has just married a notorious American, a relative stranger to her, in an arranged partnership in Havana. As they honeymoon in Key West before boarding the train to New York, she learns that her new husband’s illicit business interests might be as threatening to her life as the looming storm.
Elizabeth Preston arrives in Key West from New York to save her family from the financial trouble brought on by the Wall Street crash. There, her search for a loved one amongst the veterans’ camps of the recent Great War leads her to an unlikely ally.
The women unexpectedly cross paths as the storm grows and heads straight for the Keys over Labor Day weekend. But when the sky clears, these women will be bonded forever, and left with the opportunity to take stock and find newfound appreciation for life and love.