Summary and book reviews of The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton

The Last Train to Key West

by Chanel Cleeton

The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton X
The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton
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    Jun 2020, 320 pages

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Book Summary

In 1935 three women are forever changed when one of the most powerful hurricanes in history barrels toward the Florida Keys.

For the tourists traveling on Henry Flagler's legendary Overseas Railroad, Labor Day weekend is an opportunity to forget the economic depression gripping the nation. But one person's paradise can be another's prison, and Key West-native Helen Berner yearns to escape.

After the Cuban Revolution of 1933 leaves Mirta Perez's family in a precarious position, she agrees to an arranged marriage with a notorious American. Following her wedding in Havana, Mirta arrives in the Keys on her honeymoon. While she can't deny the growing attraction to her new husband, his illicit business interests may threaten not only her relationship, but her life.

Elizabeth Preston's trip to Key West is a chance to save her once-wealthy family from their troubles after the Wall Street crash. Her quest takes her to the camps occupied by veterans of the Great War and pairs her with an unlikely ally on a treacherous hunt of his own.

Over the course of the holiday weekend, the women's paths cross unexpectedly, and the danger swirling around them is matched only by the terrifying force of the deadly storm threatening the Keys.

Paperback original

One


Saturday, August 31, 1935
Helen

I've imagined my husband's death a thousand times. It starts, always, on the boat. There are waves, and perhaps some wind, and then he's pitched over the edge, into the sea, the water carrying him away on a strong tide, his head bobbing in the churn of turquoise and aqua, the vessel swaying to and fro in the middle of the ocean without another soul nearby to come to its aid.

Sometimes the image assaults me as I go about my day, hanging the laundry on the clothesline, the white sheets flapping in the breeze, the scent of lye on the air. Sometimes I ease into it, my thoughts lulling me away as I daydream, when I'm frying the fish Tom catches when he goes out on the Helen, a vessel with whom I share two things in common: a name, and the fact that our glory days have long since passed.

Other times it comes to me in sleep, and I jolt awake, my breaths harsh and ragged, mixing with the sound of my husband snoring beside me, his hairy arm thrown over my waist...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. At the beginning of the novel, Helen says, "People are what circumstances make them." Do you agree with her statement? Why or why not? Are there places in the book where this sentiment seems to be true? How do the characters demonstrate this?
  2. The hurricane hits Key West in 1935, during the Great Depression. What effect does the Depression have on the characters, on the setting? How do larger world events shape characters' lives in the book?
  3. What parallels do you see between the effects the hurricane has on the characters and that of fighting in the Great War?
  4. How is the treatment of the veterans of the Great War similar to the problems faced by society during the Great Depression? Were you surprised to hear about the veterans' lives ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Three women from different walks of life all share one dreaded natural disaster, the Hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys. These brave women brave dire circumstances, yet find friendship and love amidst the heartache and destruction (Patty B). Romance and danger are locked into Chanel Cleeton's travel-case for the Labor Day Special to Key West. The glamour of train travel is interlaced with the desperation of late Depression-era politics. Danger lurks at every turn as we meet three plucky heroines who rise to the challenge of survival (Claire M). The author intertwines her characters' lives among stories of disaster and romance. The characters, vivid and well-developed, move forward with their stories amid an underlying tension that is intensified by the impending storm (Susan M)...continued

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Media Reviews

NPR
[A] suspenseful, romantic, thrilling historical novel...Cleeton keeps the surprises coming: Each woman is distinct in voice, manner, and goals, and the pace of the story never slows...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.

Booklist
Cleeton's depiction of the catastrophic hurricane is both gripping and terrifying, and she skillfully balances each woman's internal growth with the various romantic subplots. Fans of Cleeton's previous books, as well as readers who enjoy Beatriz Williams' historical fiction, will devour this exciting, romantic tale.

Publishers Weekly
The author neatly ties up the trio of plotlines, revealing the slender—and very convenient—threads connecting the women. Cleeton finds the right balance of historical detail and suspense, making this a riveting curl-up-on-the-couch affair.

Library Journal
Cleeton's strength is in exploring the lives of women longing to push back against restrictive social expectations, but portions of the story dealing with the U.S. government's treatment of World War I veterans are also extremely moving. Cleeton should add to her growing fan base with this title, which is well suited for book clubs and for historical fiction fans of authors such as Renée Rosen and Susan Meissner.

Author Blurb Susan Meissner, bestselling author of The Last Year of the War
Chanel Cleeton simply never disappoints! Cleverly constructed and expertly delivered, The Last Train to Key West is a feast for readers across multiple genres. This book has it all – great characters, a compelling historical backdrop, quests for love and purpose and refuge, and a fully satisfying conclusion that will have you cheering.

Author Blurb Natasha Lester, New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Orphan
The Last Train to Key West takes you on an incredible and emotion-charged journey...[It] has everything a reader could want: not one but three incredible love stories, page-turning drama and rich historical detail. I finished the last chapter with a sigh of satisfaction that only a great book can bring about.

Author Blurb Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Huntress
The Last Train to Key West is a perfect storm of great storytelling, fast-moving plot, and rich historical detail. Tense, tight, and atmospheric, Chanel Cleeton's best yet!

Reader Reviews

Carrie

Last Train to Key West
Another engaging read from Chanel Cleeton with a strong plot and characters that keep the reader reading and identifying with them. A must read just her two earlier books were.

Patty B., Morrill Memorial Library, Norwood, MA

An intense journey from three points of view
Three women from different walks of life, all share one dreaded natural disaster, the Hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys. These brave women brave dire circumstances, yet find friendship and love amidst the heartache and destruction.

Xandra B. (Clarksdale, MS)

The Last Train to Key West - Shocked!
This book was amazing! I am normally not interested in historical fiction but went ahead and challenged myself to read this book. After the first few pages, I found it not to be a challenge at all; this is a great story. The author did a great job of...   Read More

Carol P. (Tuscaloosa, AL)

Another winner by Cleeton
Chanel Cleeton knows how to construct a tightly written, attention holding novel; this is the third of her novels that I've enjoyed reading in as many years. Three contrasting female characters, each sympathetically portrayed, have individual plots ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane in the Florida Keys

Florida Keys Memorial dedication, 1937 Chanel Cleeton's historical novel The Last Train to Key West is based on a real event that took place on September 2, 1935, now known as the Labor Day Hurricane (and sometimes called the Labor Day Storm), a Category 5 storm that killed between 400 and 600 people in the Florida Keys. It was the first recorded Category 5 hurricane to hit the United States.

The Labor Day Hurricane began as a tropical storm that was detected east of the Bahamas on August 29. The storm moved past Andros Island, an archipelago in the Bahamas, on September 1. As it turned in the direction of the Keys, it rapidly became more powerful, and by the time it reached the Middle Keys on September 2, it had attained Category 5 strength. The hurricane produced peak ...

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