Newcomers are pouring into Florida. In my neighborhood in South Tampa, houses are being torn down and huge “McMansions” are going up. I am often asked by new neighbors about my favorite restaurants and stores, but recently I was asked what “Florida-related books” should be read to learn about Florida.
While I am a historian and a reader mainly of non-fiction, here are MY FAVORITE FLORIDA-RELATED BOOKS and I think a good sample of Florida literary culture:
The Yearling and Cross Creek by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a Northern who fell in love with rural Florida life, are classic novels. A visit to her farm and grove at the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park south of Gainesville at Cross Creek is must trip.
Likewise, her friend Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is another classic. It reflects a black woman growing up in Eatonville, Florida’s oldest continuous black village. While she is often identified with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s, she wrote her major works mainly in Florida.
While she is buried in Fort Pierce and her last home (1734 Avenue L) is there, I suggest you exit I-4 and drive down Kennedy Blvd. in Eatonville to visit the Hurston Museum (called locally the Hurston) and the historic Well’s Built Hotel, where dozens of famous black entertainers stayed while performing in Orlando.
Florida’s Edna Ferber style epic novel, to me, is A Land Remembered by Patrick D. Smith. It captures the story of Florida as part of the great American experience and makes you feel you are a pioneer.
Perhaps the finest book about the importance of preserving Florida’s natural wonders is The Everglades: River of Grass by its greatest defender, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. I find it ironic that a major fight in Coconut Grove, Florida, is trying to preserve Ms. Douglas’s simple cottage at 3744 Stewart Avenue.
Moving to Florida can be very traumatic on young people. I was lucky for my family came just after a graduated from high school so I went to college. My younger brother discovered that there was no hockey team in Punta Gorda, Florida.
Two great novels for young people are Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo and Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski. It capture the loneliness and helplessness of moving of that subtropical place called Florida.
OK – I am a historian. There are lots of good Florida histories, some big and some thin. Carlton W. Tabeau (A History of Florida) was my prof at the University of Miami. The person who got me into historic preservation was Tony Pizzo (Tampa Town), the Godfather of the rebirth of Tampa’s Ybor City Latin Quarter.
A number of noted writers captured various areas of Florida. Stetson Kennedy wrote Palmetto Country. Author Branch Cabell teamed up with historian A. J. Hanna to write The St. Johns: A Parade of Diversities.
Let me give a hat salute to: Cracker: Cracker Culture in Florida History by Dana Ste Claire and Tales of Old Florida by Frank Oppel.
My father M. S. Bob Leonard was a sports editor in Southwest Florida and knew Randy Wayne White as a Sanibel Island fishing guide and not as one of the America’s foremost crime novelists. But even better- his Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grill restaurants from Sanibel to Saint Petersburg Pier show that a popular writer can launch a successful restaurant chain!
My father was also a big supporter of the Godfather of the convoluted crime and detective series: John D. MacDonald. His Condominium showed the darker side of how greed can destroy the Florida dream.
The literary style lives on with Tim Dorsey (Florida Roadkill) and Carl Hiaasen (Tourist Season).