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RSW Living Magazine

Hurricane Romance - Suspense and history swirl around in the 1935 Labor Day storm

As we tip-toe our way through another hurricane season, hoping for a quiet fall, it’s a good time to find a cozy corner and curl up with a bit of history, romance and suspense to while away the dog days. You will find all these ingredients in The Last Train to Key West, a novel by Chanel Cleeton that uses the catastrophic Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 to generate a stormy story.  

The storm bearing down on the Keys, still considered one of the worst Atlantic hurricanes on record, intersects with the other large presence in the book—Henry Flagler’s railroad connecting mainland U.S. to Key West. The railroad brings together the three main female characters, and the storm then alters their lives forever.  

There is Helen Berner, pregnant and trapped in an abusive marriage, who waits tables in a Key West diner catering to railroad travelers; Mirta Perez, who has just come from Havana, having submitted to an arranged marriage to an American with criminal ties; and Elizabeth Preston, a down-on-her luck socialite who arrives from New York in search of her brother. Although the three women don’t realize it, their lives and loves are intricately tied together.

These details are deliciously divulged over the course of the book as the women face their challenges, not to mention the approaching hurricane. The weather forecasts in 1935 were not what they have become today, so there is little time to prepare or evacuate. 

The Last Train to Key West gives readers a glimpse into a little-known bit of Depression-era history when hundreds of World War I veterans were sent to ramshackle camps in the Keys to work on Flagler’s railroad. Cleeton infers that they were not treated well, and many of them perished in the hurricane after fruitless attempts to get them out before the storm hit.

The lives of Helen, Mirta and Elizabeth revolve around the railroad and these veterans’ camps as each woman tries to make her way in the world, against towering odds. Cleeton has a habit of writing about strong women who are undeterred by crime, abuse, financial trouble or even an imminent hurricane. She has hit the bestseller lists before with her previous books, Next Year in Havana (a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick in 2018), and a follow-up in 2019, When We Left Cuba. 

Now Cleeton continues her successful run with The Last Train to Key West, providing an absorbing look at some Florida history that might otherwise have stayed hidden in the archives.