Under a Dark Summer Sky
By: Vanessa Lafaye
Publisher: SOURCEBOOKS Landmark
Publication Date: 6/9/2015
My Rating: 5 Stars +
Horrifying and beautiful, Under a Dark Summer Sky is a fictionalized account of one of the most devastating natural disasters in US history. Florida Keys, 1935. Hurricane Season. Tens of thousands of black and white men scarred by their experiences of war in Europe return home to find themselves abandoned to destitution by the US government. The tiny, segregated community of Heron Key is suddenly overwhelmed by broken, disturbed men with new ideas about racial equality and nothing left to lose. Tensions flare when a black veteran is accused of committing the most heinous crime of all against a white resident’s wife. And not far off the strongest and most intense hurricane America has ever witnessed is gaining force. For fans of The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird, this is the story of the greatest tragedy you've never heard of.
WFLA Chief Meteorologist Steve Jerve introduces British novelist Vanessa Lafaye's newest book "Under a Dark Summer Sky" on the 80th Anniversary of the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane that hit Florida's Middle Keys.
About the Author
I was born in Tallahassee, FL in 1963 but the family moved to Tampa soon after. This is where I was raised and schooled until I left for Duke University in 1981. There were hurricanes most years, strong enough to send us scurrying for the safety of the bedroom closets, but nothing on the scale depicted in SUMMERTIME (UNDER A DARK SUMMER SKY). I am happy to say that I’ve never experienced a natural disaster of that magnitude. A thirst for adventure brought me to Europe in 1987, first to France and then England.
Writing was always a part of my life, from my first story at the age of six, but I did not made any efforts to get published until my 40s. I never imagined that my first novel to be published would be set in Florida, the place which I left nearly 30 years ago. At age 51, I’m proof that it’s never too late to have your dreams come true. Website Twitter
A special thank you to Sourcebooks Landmark and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
UNDER A DARK SUMMER SKY by Vanessa Lafaye is a powerful and poignant southern fiction debut, crossing several genres—from history, literary, romance, crime, suspense, and thriller. One of many secrets and lies, capturing the essence of time, place and history. From racial unrest, and misplaced war veterans, combined with one of the worst hurricanes in American history, set in 1935 in the Florida Keys.
Based on true historical events, a love story of determination, overcoming a past, and fighting against all odds, this beautifully written book has just been added to my Top 30 books for 2015! Highly recommend.
The attraction: When I saw this cover on NetGalley, I knew the book was for me, and wow, I was not disappointed. From the usage of Broadway font, on the front cover (designers pick up on these things); a draw from the era--fascinating yet complicated 30s, and a dazzling front cover- was intrigued. (front and back packaging excellent- hats off to the designer), Combined with a captivating summary which grabbed me at hello- my favorite genre, an avid lover of history, and a former resident of the Florida Keys (current South Florida resident)- was HOOKED prior to opening page one.
However, the real treat and unexpected delight- the author’s brilliant writing and research. Did I misread—"A debut"? If this is a debut, cannot imagine what is to come! Wow, this mesmerizing story captured me from beginning to end, and am still pondering, while writing my review. Each word jumps off the page, the emotions and intensity of each character, so profound; the vivid settings taking you back in time, the Old Florida Keys, while reliving a troubled past, as you experience the humid heat, the tension, amidst the storm, the suspense, and the racial unrest –sending chill bumps down my spine.
Nothing better than a true to life historic event, mixed with a magical fictional twist, as they are blended for a riveting tale, reminiscent of another time. Not an easy task, and Lafaye executes with finesse and sensitivity for an impressive well-paced delivery. A page-turner—I read this one in one sitting.
Set in the Florida Keys in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, in summer of fictional town of Heron Key (actual Islamorada-my favorite place in the entire Keys), a place where tourists come to enjoy the beaches, (the rich whites) riding the Henry Flagler East Coast Railway to Key West. However, not all was so peaceful and glorious for those left behind.
Unfortunately The Jim Crow laws were in place, demanding racial segregation enforced through state and local government, after the Reconstruction period in Southern US, continuing in force until 1965. Florida was of course included. The beaches were separated, colored and whites, stores, restaurants, hotels, restaurants, public restrooms, schools, and the list goes on and on.
To further complicate matters, a group of misplaced homeless, and jobless World War I veterans were granted an opportunity to join a public works project in the Keys, among three work camps spread throughout the Keys. At first the veterans were excited to be a part of this project, until they arrived to see the poor living and working conditions and the lack of respect and mistreatment. No wonder they were angry…first the war, then this? If you happened to be the wrong color, you were all but doomed.
The local people, generations known as Conchs were not so accepting. Their lives were invaded by hard-drinking, disturbed (shell shocked instead of PTSD, as known today), and dangerous men in their midst. If you know the area, it is isolated and not a lot of room to spread out. Worst of all, the government was of little assistance, and did not offer a support system to this group of brave men who fought to save our country.
Combined with the brutal climate, unfair treatment, unbearable working conditions, building a railway bridge in the hot heat, treated as second rate citizens, and the inadequate facilities, mixed with the racial andn social issues-- you have a difficult and unbearable situation. Now it is about to become even worse than a danger war zone, with the most powerful hurricane approaching. Some did not take it seriously. The worst ever to strike North America in 1935. These poor men cannot catch a break.
As the book opens we meet the lovely black young woman, Missy whose job is to take care of little baby Nathan, son of Mr. and Mrs. Kincaid. Mrs. Kincaid comes from money, however, she forced her marriage due to her pregnancy and over the years, the former beauty queen, now fat and lonely, and depressed. Her cheating drinking husband makes no secret of his affairs with the many women at the country club.
When an alligator is close to eating Little Nathan for lunch (very funny), made me think of Million Dollar Road by Amy Conner; Missy and her friend Selma act quickly to divert a tragedy before the Kincaid's arrive home in preparation for the annual Fourth of July picnic. Selma her dear friend’s African American son Henry Roberts was one of the unfortunate ones to go off to war, and shows up to help with the cleanup and aftermath. (this fiasco ties in with something later).
Missy has been in love with Henry Roberts since she was a little girl, waiting her entire life for his return. He was a little older and the young man she looked up to. She has never been anywhere much outside of home, with little chance for an education, a future, and dreams of one day marrying and falling in love with Henry Roberts and having a family of her own. However, she is smart, and she loves little Nathan. She is given the entire set of encyclopedias (don’t we all recall these), so she stays abreast of the world in her on way, through her books. In the south two big things, encyclopedias and burial plots.
However, she is shocked, when discovering Henry Roberts has been here working in the camp and never looked her up. He is back! She has waited her entire life for this day. She assumed he had met some French woman or possibly too sophisticated for her. Nothing could be further from the truth. A bright future ahead of him, when he left; now he is stuck in this Godforsaken place, and what would he have to offer Missy? A damaged, broke, and skeleton of a man he used to be. The government has gotten him into this mess of a life.
When the town gathers for the annual 4th picnic, the whites, blacks, and veterans will be mingling, with free flowing booz and years of pent up anger- a combo for trouble. White Sherriff Dwayne Campbell is anticipating it, and he too has some unresolved old issues and secrets, a past , violence---when his wife gave birth to a black baby and she refuses to name the father. He takes out his anger and violence in many way.
While at the picnic, trouble breaks out, a white woman gets beat up and left for dead and the blame and suspicion has to be directed at someone. Henry Roberts would make an easy fall guy, especially when Campbell overhears rumors Roberts could be the father of his son, while the real killer is out there running free, and a woman is fighting for her life.
Missy is out to claim her man and the life she wanted, and tries desperately to help defend him from a system who wants to destroy her love, and the man she admires. There is a damaged veteran doctor full of grief, who wants to save the woman he may love, and a group of veterans left hanging without a care for their safety, a train which may never arrive, as a storm gets closer and the only shelter will not allow coloreds, and the rest are left out in a storm which will destroy everything in its path. An escape, a train, a shelter, a hurricane, and lost souls.
A cast characters, desperate to save their own lives and the ones they love, while dealing with a past of mistakes for an intense and dangerous race against time, wind, rain, and storms of life-- will there be anything left after this disaster, to start a new, where even a record-breaking hurricane can’t wash away the past.
A gripping southern suspense debut with characters you will despise and some you will adore. You will fall in love with Missy and Henry Roberts and continue rooting for them, as well as Missy, Doc, and some of the others who are mistreated in so many ways. I loved the boxcar scene when the people from the shelter were run out…priceless!
I enjoyed the well-researched history notes, as alarming to know Florida's status as "Lynching capital of the South" in 1935. Often authors dismiss Florida, writing of other deep southern states. However, as the author points out, lynchings were carried out for a variety of crimes and nothing worse than a crime of violence by a black man (like Henry Roberts) against a white woman, or even accused even though innocent. During this time it was about the white man, and the misdirected power, as they ruled the government both state and federal, especially those with money.
History "The poor black women, such as Selma, Mama, and Missy had no civil rights, as we know today. In addition, being a veteran during this time whether white or black was extremely hard, as many left their jobs and families to fight for their country but came back to destitution. In 1922 Congress approved a bonus for their service due to be paid in 1945. Pressure was on to make early payment when in 1932 when 40,000 vets and their families made camp outside the US Capitol building. Was approved for the house but defeated by Senate and later had to wait until 1936 to get their bonus. " You can read more at the end of the book – fascinating!
Fans of Dollbaby, The Help, Lavina, To Kill a Mockingbird, Snapshot, and authors Wiley Cash, Diane Chamberlain, Amy Conner, Charles Martin, and Susan Rebecca White, among the southern classics, as well as lovers of literary, southern historical fiction, suspense, and romance will devour this one.
If I have not sold you on this incredible book by now, and you are not pressing Pre-Order, let me also add what really adds icing to the cake--for those history and research buffs: Included:
The Reading Group Guide, A Conversation with the Author, The Author’s Note, and drum roll – Further Reading (have already ordered some of the references for additional reading on the subject). UNDER A DARK SUMMER SKY is an ideal choice for book clubs, groups, and further discussions. Cannot wait for Vanessa Lafaye’s next book – a new fan!