Three Women and a Storm: The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton
In her new historical novel The Last Train to Key West (Berkley, June 2020), Chanel Cleeton describes the days before the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. The country is still feeling the impact of the Great Depression, and Florida is filled with veterans who work on the railroad, housed in tents and shacks. The stillness before the storm, the vague weather reports and the strength of the hurricane makes the backdrop ominous and compelling.
The novel begins when the paths of three young women cross in Key West at Ruby’s Diner. Little do they know that they are about to suffer a giant storm. Waitress Helen is weathering pregnancy in an abusive marriage. Reluctantly, she allows a kind stranger to help her to mitigate her desperate circumstances. At the same time, Elizabeth, a New York socialite, is trying to find her brother, a veteran of The Great War (WWI). She enlists the help of an FBI agent, who is there on a secret mission. Together they are trawling the veteran campsites set up by government. Newlywed Cuban Mirta Perez finds herself in Florida on her honeymoon, getting acquainted with her new husband (a man with mob connections, whom she barely knows). Through Mirta’s relations, Cleeton returns to her fictional Perez family from previous novels Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba.
“I’ve become quite fond of my fictional Perez family, and I love following them through different pivotal events,” Cleeton explained. “It’s been a fascinating way to explore my cultural heritage and to learn more about Cuban history.”
The story is set at the backdrop of a tumultuous historical period and the characters are all impacted by it. Elizabeth’s family lost their fortune after the crash in 1929 and Mirta finds herself married to a stranger in an effort to support her family’s social standing. Helen sees her husband struggle to find legitimate work and take up the job of smuggling booze. When the storm approaches, the tensions instigate an immense change.
“I was really inspired by all of the natural intersections during that moment in history. There was so much going on during that time period: travel between the United States and Cuba via Henry Flagler’s legendary overseas railroad and ferry, the recent end of Prohibition, the Cuban Revolution of 1933, the Great Depression, and the impact of the Great War on the veterans who fought in it,” Cleeton said. “As I began to examine these exchanges, I wondered what sort of women would populate the novel, and Helen, Mirta, and Elizabeth came to life. They were all very much a product of the circumstances in which they lived, but at the same time, I was drawn to the similarities between them and the ways in which their lives would mix during such a dangerous event. We talk about living in a globalized world now, but I think it’s important to remember how many cultural intersections have occurred throughout history.”
Cleeton focused extensively on the characters when writing her novel. She researched non-fiction writings to develop her characters, and then used those characters to drive the story forward.
“I read quite a bit of non-fiction on the time period to better understand what life would have been like for my characters,” Cleeton said. “I find a great deal of freedom in making my characters entirely their own so I can adapt and alter the story as their actions dictate. They really take on a life of their own when I’m drafting. I’m also drawn to stories of ordinary people caught in extraordinary events because there’s something very relatable about their experiences so my books typically involve fictional characters.”
During the course of her research, Cleeton encountered many interesting facts and historical figures, though those historical figures remain on the lateral stage.
“In terms of ancillary characters who are historical figures, I really look to the historical record to make them as historically accurate as possible,” she points out.
Cleeton believes in the power of historical novels, and the immensity of what they can teach us today.
“My novels are often a cathartic outlet for me, and it gave me an opportunity to explore my feelings through a historical lens and to pour some of my emotions onto the page,” Cleeton said. “There are often so many parallels between history and modern events, and I often find myself looking to the strength of my ancestors to get me through difficult times. It can certainly be extremely sobering and maddening, though, to see that many of the challenges and prejudice people faced decades ago are still ongoing. History can teach us both how far we’ve come and show us how far we have to go.”
About the contributor: Helen Piper is a freelance journalist, and currently working on her first novel. Previously she worked as a lawyer.