Excerpt from Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Sunshine State


by Sarah Gerard

Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard X
Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2017, 384 pages
    Apr 2017, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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Print Excerpt

Sunshine State

Characters in the following story are presenting their own versions of events and do not necessarily reflect the truth, which we may never know. Some names have been changed to protect anonymity.

The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary sits hidden behind a bank of palms on a curve in Gulf Boulevard, which follows a strip of barrier islands from the top to the bottom of Pinellas County, Florida. The curve marks the place where Redington Shores stops and Indian Shores begins. Pastel-colored luxury hotels and salty stilt houses flank the sanctuary, and a giant fiberglass pelican marks its entrance, its paint chipped and faded from the sun. Next to the pelican a rainbow flag reads "OPEN."

Growing up in Pinellas County, I visited the sanctuary many times as a child. I remembered it being a place of encounters—with strange species, with wild instincts. Standing in the faintly shit-scented gift shop on my first day as a volunteer, I told the coordinator, Adrianne Beitl, that I'd returned to write about it. I'd be working at the sanctuary for six weeks, doing research.

"Are you a journalist?" she asked.

"I'm more of a memoirist."

Adrianne had hair the color of wet sand and a face that looked perpetually confused. I filled out an application and handed it to her. We looked at each other.

"There have been bad things written about us in the paper," she said.

I thought I would write an essay about birds. In a lightly magical way, I'd begun to notice them all around me. A few weeks before, I'd found a fledgling pigeon on the sidewalk in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Its feathers were coming in and it couldn't yet fly, and I'd feared for its safety on the busy sidewalk, unable to find its nest. I brought it to a bird hospital on the Upper East Side. In the examining room, a veterinarian fished trichomoniasis buildup out of its throat with a cotton swab on an orangewood stick and, in the custom of the shelter, named the fledgling Sarah. I felt I was on the trail of something ancient. I felt I was hunting something powerful and primal.

The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary was founded in 1971 when Ralph Heath, a newly graduated premed zoology student on his way to do some Christmas shopping, brought home a cormorant he'd found dragging a broken wing on the side of Gulf Boulevard. At the time, Ralph was living with his wife, Linda, and his parents in his robin's-egg- colored childhood home, which later became, and remains, the sanctuary office. With the help of a local veterinarian, Ralph and his father nursed the bird back to health, named it Maynard, and let it live in their front yard. Soon after, a local bait fisherman caught wind of their success and brought them an injured gull. Then the postman left a bird on their doorstep. Then birds began arriving outside their front door every day.

Ralph recounts the story in Flying Free 2, a low-budget video history of the sanctuary—an experiment in nontraditional camera angles, somehow costarring local newscaster Bill Murphy. Like old friends, clad in matching safari shirts, the two sit across from each other on wood pilings inside the brown pelican enclosure and engage in what sounds like a casually overrehearsed conversation about Ralph's history.

"Ralph, let's talk a bit about someone who had such an impression on you and the direction of your life," says Bill, looking straight into the camera. "Talk a little bit about your dad."

"My father was a very unusual doctor," Ralph replies, as if hearing the question for the first time. "He was an MD, not a veterinarian. But he was probably the best surgeon Tampa ever had. He could put anything with tissue back together."

Now in his seventies, Ralph has lived on sanctuary property for more than fifty years. His house is across the street from the sanctuary office and overlooks the Gulf of Mexico—he lives on the bottom floor. The first time I saw him, Ralph was wandering down the dirt pathway in front of the hospital, shirtless and in flip-flops, speaking into a flip phone, saying, "We haven't really had money to do that." I'd assumed he'd been removed as the sanctuary's director, having followed up on Adrianne's recommended readings: Ralph had been in the news a lot over the last decade, for all the wrong reasons. So I asked another volunteer, an older, short-haired woman, who this slovenly, beer-gutted man was, as he seemed to be making decisions. Just moments before, she'd offered to dissect an owl pellet for me, so I'd decided she was friendly.

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Excerpted from Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard. Copyright © 2017 by Sarah Gerard. Excerpted by permission of Harper Perennial. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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