Pleasure Reading: Florida Love Letters

By Rae DeShong
January 15, 2023

Russell Banks’s much-awaited novel The Magic Kingdom was released in Nov. 2022, shortly after Hurricane Ian hit Florida.

For those who have spent significant time there or just one memorable vacation, you may be hoping to plan a visit again soon. Until then, this novel takes you back, prior to the boom and bust of the 1920s. The novel is subtly wrought with impressionistic description and paced as a ferry meticulously crossing the swampland.

It’s a tale of youthful love, a lifetime of longing, and the unfolding of a utopian dream all set against the backdrop of the south-central Florida wilderness, long before the swampland was filled and Disney World built. It is based on the true story of a Shaker commune founded in 1896.

An 80-something Harley Mann narrates his coming-of-age in the New Bethany colony, where Ruskinite politics shape the lives and rhythms of the community.

Young Harley is intelligent and well-spoken, but obsesses over a sickly young woman. His story of communal life and its eventual destruction has love and scandal at the heart of it.

The law steps in after a moral upheaval at the colony. Residents scatter. Harley remains and begins to piece together his life by purchasing related land parcels. In doing so, the reader is left to wonder if a man brought up in a socialist religious sect, pining for love and lost community, ended up paving the way for the Happiest Place on Earth.

Want more reading that features “Old Florida”?

I’m a Florida-born Texan with native-Floridian parents.

Here are just a few books that remind me of my native state — of sitting in the backseat of a non-airconditioned car, watching the moon follow us through Lee County.

We were fortunate to have experienced the state in the 1970s.   

Though not exhaustive, this list affords a glimpse of the Sunshine State long before it was marketed as such.

 

Bubble in the Sun: The Florida Boom of the 1920s and How It Brought on The Great Depression, by Christopher Knowlton.

Real estate and migration are at the center of this 2020 book, both of which play a part in The Magic Kingdom.

Cat Tail: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther, by Craig Pittman.

The environmental journalist tells an incredible story of how the big cat was saved and the colorful people involved. Land management and real estate play are drivers in the tale.

Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

A memoir of the author’s home during the 1930s, Rawlings’s work is rich with imagery and peppered with regional recipes. As in her adventures running an orange grove, agricultural pursuits play a part in Harley Mann’s training at New Bethany.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neal Hurston.

Part of the American literary canon, this romance takes place in the all-Black community of Eatonville, Fla., just northeast of Banks’s kingdom. His description of landscape and weather events call Hurston’s 1937 novel to mind.

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