Published by BERKLEY on June 16, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
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FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.
Set in the Florida Keys during the Great Depression, Chanel Cleeton’s latest novel, The Last Train to Key West is a heart-stopping read that follows three young women whose lives are forever changed when a devastating hurricane strikes.
Helen has lived in the Keys all her life. She is nine months pregnant and married to an abusive man whose abuse has only gotten worse as times have gotten more desperate. When we first meet Helen, she is daydreaming about what life could be like if her husband were to die. Helen captured my heart right from that scene because imagine being in such a bad situation that trying to make it alone in the world with an infant in the middle of the Depression is preferable to living with your own husband.
Mirta, a young woman from Cuba, has come to the Keys with her new husband. Her marriage is an arranged marriage to pay off her family’s debts and all Mirta knows about the man she has married is that he is from New York and that he appears to be involved in an unsavory and potentially dangerous line of work. As they arrive in the Keys on their honeymoon before heading home to NYC, Mirta is feeling incredibly anxious, having been forced to leave her family and the only home she has ever known to go with this man who is a stranger to her. As with Helen, I immediately became invested in Mirta and her well being.
The last young woman we meet is Eliza, a native New Yorker who has traveled to the Keys. She tries to play it cool and be coy about why she’s traveling so far alone, but the truth is that she’s desperately searching for a long-lost family member. Eliza has heard rumors that he may be at a work camp in the Keys, which is what has brought her to Florida. Eliza is determined to find him and bring him home because he’s the only one who can save her from a future she does not want and a man she does not love. I admired Eliza right away because of her spunk and determination, so as with both Helen and Mirta, I was immediately hoping that Eliza would find her happy ending.
Cleeton’s storytelling just pulled me in right away. I loved the way the story unfolds through alternating chapters from Helen, Mirta and Eliza and how their journeys eventually become intertwined with one another. The characters are so complex and beautifully drawn, and all three of them possess an inner strength and sense of resiliency that made me love them all the more. Their stories were all so compelling that I just couldn’t put the book down.
It wasn’t just these wonderful characters that made The Last Train to Key West such a fantastic read, however. The story is also fraught with danger, suspense, and mystery, and kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time I was reading. As if these women didn’t already have enough to contend with, there are also potential dangers with the mob afoot as well as a deadly hurricane bearing down on the island contrary to weather reports that had the storm taking a different path. I don’t want to say anything else for fear of spoiling but, just wow! I devoured this book in a couple of sittings and still wanted more when I finished the final page!
These characters and their lives grabbed hold of my heartstrings and didn’t let go, which just made for a perfect read for me. I also didn’t realize when I first started reading that the hurricane in the book is also based on an actual catastrophic storm that struck the Keys back in 1935. Cleeton made that whole experience feel so real and so devastating that I shed tears when I realized it was based on an actual event. The Last Train to Key West is, by far, one of my favorite reads of 2020 thus far and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction and stories that feature women trying to make their own happy endings.