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NPR Arts & Life

Love In The Eye Of A Hurricane In 'Last Train To Key West'

The Last Train to Key West, by Chanel Cleeton

Think of a classic old movie with gritty, believable characters, stunning locations, and a massive dose of danger (like a hurricane, or a war, or a terrible crime) and then add tons of suspense (will your favorite actors live or die?). Perhaps Grand Hotel (1932) or Lifeboat (1944) or something made in the 21st century like The Perfect Storm (2000).

Next, transplant those feelings from the silver screen to a suspenseful, romantic, thrilling historical novel featuring three women on separate journeys as a hurricane bears down on them.

Now you have Chanel Cleeton's The Last Train to Key West.

Edge-of-your-seat storytelling is Cleeton's hallmark; she hit the bestseller lists for her previous books When We Left Cuba and Next Year in Havana. In her latest, Cleeton takes on one of the deadliest natural disasters of the early 20th century in an intimate tale of survival, love, and courage.

The Florida Keys were ground zero for the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, a devastating Category 5 storm — in fact, the strongest recorded hurricane to hit the United States. It destroyed property throughout the Keys and took more than 400 lives, both civilians and the World War I veterans living in cheaply constructed work camps as they built a new rail line.

The novel's imminent danger, its ticking clock, is the hurricane, but the three main characters and their complicated relationships really deliver the tension.

Shy but resilient Helen Berner is nine months pregnant and in an abusive marriage. She also is a waitress at Ruby's Cafe, a restaurant near the end of the Florida East Coast Railway line. As both the storm and the baby approach, she has a choice to make about her nine-year marriage.

Elizabeth Preston is a young and beautiful socialite, with a fiancé in New York City, but she's traveling alone, looking for her brother. After several personal tragedies, her search for her brother may also help her decide whether or not marriage is the right next step for her. On the train, however, she meets a man she can't easily charm — but he could be someone she can trust.

Newlywed Mirta Cordero is visiting from Havana on her honeymoon. An arranged match, her wealthy husband is a casino owner in Havana, but what kind of business does he operate in New York City? Will these two strangers find a way to love each other and stay alive?

Helen, Mirta and Elizabeth don't buy into the limitations of their gender. They refuse to give up when faced with devastating obstacles, be it a marriage, engagement, or a relationship they're expected to accept without question — or a deadly Labor Day hurricane.

Falling in love, overcoming the fear of love, and learning who not to love are key obstacles for these women as they deal with the immediate terror of a hurricane. The narrative jumps between Helen, Mirta, and Elizabeth, but each character resonates from chapter to chapter, and heightening the tension. And Cleeton keeps the surprises coming: Each woman is distinct in voice, manner, and goals, and the pace of the story never slows.

In 1935, the Depression defined the lives of both men and women: Fortunes lost in the stock market crash, little or no work regardless of your background. But for the women in Cleeton's story, the Depression means something more — that marriage, or a relationship with a man, is their only assured path to survival. But Helen, Mirta and Elizabeth don't buy into the limitations of their gender. They refuse to give up when faced with devastating obstacles, be it a marriage, engagement, or a relationship they're expected to accept without question — or a deadly Labor Day hurricane.

The book is a bit dialogue-heavy at times, and I could've used a few more descriptions, a little more time spent with each character — especially once the storm struck, and in its immediate aftermath. But overall, The Last Train to Key West blends danger, intimacy, history, and suspense in a taut, romantic story I didn't want to end.

Denny S. Bryce writes historical fiction. Her first novel,Wild Women and the Blues , is coming this year. You can follow her on Twitter @dennysbryce

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