Burt, Al. The Tropic of Cracker. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1999. Former Miami Herald columnist Al Burt did Florida natives a great service when he wrote The Tropic of Cracker. By reminding readers that the state would be nothing without the farmers, homesteaders, and pioneers who made this swamp livable (or at least bearable), Burt draws a bright line between the warm, organic, and occasionally quirky heart of Florida’s traditional residents and the hucksters and opportunists who have sought to exploit the state for a quick buck.
Carlson, Charlie. Weird Florida. New York: Sterling, 2005. While nearly every state in the Union has its own weird sites and stories, Florida undoubtedly has more than most. Charlie Carlson has done a great job in collecting and organizing the weirdest and most wonderful, and for those looking for a sort of alternate-reality tour through the Sunshine State—or simply looking for a good chuckle—this book is essential reading.
Douglas, Marjory Stoneman. The Everglades: River of Grass. New York: Rinehart, 1947. This seminal treatise on the Everglades was originally assigned as a piece on the Miami River for Rinehart’s Rivers of America series; instead, Douglas’s research took her to the vast waterways and swamps of the Everglades, where she found a diversity of flora, fauna, and delicate ecosystems that was wholly unique and under threat from nearby development. By all accounts, Douglas’s evocative and accessible writing in River of Grass laid the foundation for the contemporary conservation efforts underway in the Glades, as she painted a portrait of a natural area that was a distinct national treasure, worthy of protection.
Gannon, Michael. Florida: A Short History, revised edition. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2003. Histories of Florida, both comprehensive and condensed, abound. None, however, are as compelling and engaging as Gannon’s 190-page narrative. Cramming five centuries of discovery, exploration, exploitation, and growth into an easy-to-read and stylistically enjoyable tale, Gannon’s book dusts away the dry studiousness of most history texts and presents the state itself as the main character in an epic tale.
Crews, Harry. All We Need of Hell. New York: Harper & Row, 1987. A great introduction to the wild world of Harry Crews’s novels, at just over 150 pages and crafted with his typical concision, All We Need is one of the intense author’s most lighthearted works. That’s not to say that it’s easy reading—the protagonist is Gainesville lawyer Duffy Deeter, who derives most of his life’s pleasure and exercise from starting fistfights—but the interplay between Crews’s well-drawn characters and their oppressive, humid surroundings is an engrossing introduction to the author’s often-imitated style.
Hemingway, Ernest. To Have and To Have Not. New York: Scribners, 1937. Although Big Papa wasn’t particularly fond of this work—it was cobbled together from two short stories, a novella, and some additional writing; Howard Hawks reportedly said Hemingway referred to it as a “bunch of junk”—but it’s still a remarkable look at early-20th-century life in the Keys. The protagonist is Harry Morgan, a smuggler who works the water between Cuba and Key West, and in telling Harry’s story, Hemingway paints a vivid picture of just how lawless and adventurous this part of Florida was up until just a few decades ago.
Hiaasen, Carl. Tourist Season. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1986. Carl Hiaasen’s first book may not be his best; that honor has to go to 1991’s Native Tongue. But the template the author set out here for his books is unmistakable and revolutionary in terms of Florida literature. Hiaasen has a reporter’s knack for weaving a story out of multiple threads of corruption, crime, and craven carnality, and he does so with a steady dose of wry humor. One critic called him a cross between Elmore Leonard and Dave Barry, but his work is far more nuanced and less pulpy than Leonard’s, and despite sharing a background in newspapers, Hiaasen and Barry’s writing styles couldn’t be more different. One of the only authors to capture the insanity, beauty, depravity, and deep-seated weirdness of the Sunshine State, Hiaasen is clearly in love with Florida, and uses each of his novels to jab at the moneyed interests that threaten to pave over it entirely.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1937. Widely acknowledged as one of the best American novels, Hurston’s classic book is also a landmark in African American literature. Although written while Hurston was an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance, the book draws heavily on her experiences growing up in Eatonville, Florida, one of the first towns in the United States to be incorporated as an all-black municipality. The book’s central activities take place in Eatonville, and the story follows protagonist Janie Crawford throughout her life in different cities in the state.
McGuane, Thomas. Ninety-two in the Shade. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1973. “Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic,” is not an expected opening line for a novel about a Key West fishing guide, but Ninety-two in the Shade isn’t a typical novel, nor is Thomas McGuane a typical writer. This book put McGuane on the map and set the stage for him to become the celebrity novelist nicknamed Captain Berserko, yet despite all the author’s personal eccentricities and 1970s excess, this book’s legend is well-deserved. Illustrating the roguish heart of the Keys, the ongoing moral implosion of the state of Florida, and at its core the story of a man who just wants to do the right thing, Ninety-two is engaging and thought-provoking, and often quite hilarious.
Rawlings, Marjorie Kinnan. The Yearling. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1938. This Pulitzer Prize–winning young-adult novel is, putatively, about a little boy and his pet fawn, but Rawlings sketches a beautiful portrait of rural north-central Florida in the Cracker era. Although most of us read the story of Jody Baxter and his farming family in grade school, rereading Rawlings’s book now reveals it to be a rather harrowing and intense tale, as evocative of the realities of its time and place as some of Mark Twain’s best work.
Smith, Patrick. A Land Remembered. Sarasota: Pineapple, 1996. Smith’s sprawling novel covers more than a century of Florida history, told from the perspective of three generations of the MacIvey family. From the Civil War and the early-20th-century land boom and bust through the massive wealth amassed by Old Florida families through the 1960s, the book tends to get lost in its melodramatic sweep but captures and crystallizes the growth and change of the state.
White, Randy Wayne. The Man Who Invented Florida. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993; Dorsey, Tim. Florida Roadkill: A Novel. New York: William Morrow, 1999. In the wake of Carl Hiaasen’s success with telling the story of Florida from a slightly off-kilter and ultimately more realistic perspective, a number of other Florida writers got attention. Randy Wayne White and Tim Dorsey are two of the most prolific, and thankfully, also two of the best. White’s series of “Doc Ford” adventures—of which The Man Who Invented Florida is the third, best, and strangest—takes place on Florida’s Gulf coast, which lends the proceedings more of a swampy backwoods-noir feel, but the crime and current issues at play keep the books from being standard potboilers. Like Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey loves writing about shenanigans in Miami, and Florida Roadkill is his first and funniest book. Though he doesn’t have the stylistic skills of Hiaasen, Dorsey’s books are insanely good fun, barreling the reader through a cast of oddball characters and perilous situations.
© Jason Ferguson from Moon Florida, 1st Edition