Book Reviews: I Learned Something SO Important From Two So-So Books

Publication dates:  June 2016 and June 2020

Reviews, short version:  One rose each.

Reviews, long version:

Kristin Harmel’s When We Meet Again (2016) and Chanel Cleeton’s The Last Train to Key West were only so-so in my opinion.

Harmel’s lead character, Emily, 36, is so guilt-ridden that it gets wearying very quickly.  When all is resolved at the end, my main emotion was relief that Emily’s story was over.

Cleeton’s three lead characters – Helen, Mirta and Elizabeth – are all in Key West, FL in 1935 for differing reasons.  The fourth character – a weather event called “the most intense hurricane you’ve never heard of” – messes everyone up, then all is resolved.

So – so-so.

Except for the “I didn’t know that” moment in each book.

I have a lot of “I didn’t know that” moments.  What I don’t know would fill the Library of Congress and plenty of other libraries, as well.

So I love learning new information, whether it’s through hearing it, watching it or reading it.

Even when the source is so-so books.

In When We Meet Again I learned that during World War II, there were German POW – prisoner of war – camps in the United States.  (I didn’t know that.)  Part of the book’s story takes place in Florida, so I started my own research at the Museum of Florida History:

“During World War II, some 378,000 German and Italian captives were sent to prisoner-of-war camps in the United States.  Overall, about 10,000 German prisoners spent time in Florida, and it became a relatively common sight for Floridians to see POWs working on farms or in logging camps.”

Beginning in March 1944, around 2,500 German prisoners were confined to Camp Gordon Johnston in Carrabelle, FL as well as the three branch camps.

Few of these prisoners were Nazis; most were just young men conscripted into Hitler’s army, many of whom were anti-Hitler and happy to sit out the remainder of the war in the safety of U.S. POW camps.

POWs picking ornages.

Another source – PalmBeachCountyHistoryOnline – talked of how the shortage of agricultural workers created a demand for labor.  In addition to working on farms and in logging camps, the POWs were put to work in a bean-canning factory, and they…

“…helped to build the Lake Okeechobee Dike.  Others chopped sugarcane in the fields in and around the camp from before 8am to about 3pm, for which they were paid 80 cents a day in coupons they traded for items such as cigarettes and beer.”

World War II ended in September 1945 and, according to Smithsonian magazine,

“By 1946, all prisoners had been returned to their home countries.”

Though, adds History.net,

“…an unknown percentage later came back to the United States, largely because of poor employment prospects in the immediate postwar Germany.” 

And some POWs had fallen in love with American women – one of the storylines in When We Meet Again.

My “I didn’t know that” in The Last Train to Key West has to do with the U.S. government’s lousy treatment of U.S. military veterans.

That sounds timely, and it is, but this story is set in 1935, and these were veterans of World War I – a war that had ended in 1918, 17 years earlier.

According to my research,

“…in 1924 many of these veterans had been awarded bonuses in the form of certificates they could not redeem until 1945.  Each certificate, issued to a qualified veteran soldier, bore a face value equal to the soldier’s promised payment with compound interest.”

Many of the war veterans had been out of work since the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, and in mid-1932 they marched to Washington, DC to demand early cash redemption of their service certificates.

According to public radio PRX.org, this group, now called the “Bonus Army,” consisted of:

“…more than 20,000 veterans and their families arriving in the nation’s capital.  They established a tent city and vowed to stay until their demands were met.  But finally, in a historic confrontation, General Douglas MacArthur’s Army troops routed the Bonus Army and burned their camp to the ground.”

A 2015 story in the Miami Herald says,

“President Franklin Roosevelt tried to fix the problem when he took office in March 1933 by putting the men to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps.  When the economy began showing signs of recovery, many vets headed home.  But some – written off as hopeless hobos by many but likely suffering combat-related disorders – returned to Washington to resume protesting.  Faced with another showdown, Roosevelt persuaded Florida and two other states to reopen work camps.

“By late summer 1935, about 700 soldiers were in the upper Keys building a highway bridge to link Lower Matecumbe and Fiesta Key, and open the hardscrabble Upper Keys to the flow of tourism filling coffers in Key West.”

When the “the most intense hurricane you’ve never heard of” hit the Florida Keys on Labor Day in 1935, many of these veterans died; “soldiers,” says the article, “sent to a mosquito-infested rock during hurricane season to work for the government only to be abandoned once the inevitable storm arrived.”

Some died on a long-delayed evacuation train hit by a massive tidal wave, while for others who weren’t evacuated,

“Farther south, the veteran camps – the closest settlements to where the eye passed over Long Key – simply washed away as sustained 185 mph winds hammered the flimsy tents.  Soldiers later recounted lashing themselves to trees or hanging on to railway tracks.  Some sought cover in trenches where rock for the highway bridge had been quarried, only to drown when the storm surge filled them.”

The aftermath?

Aerial view taken three days after the 1935 hurricane of the ill-fated rescue train sent into the Florida Keys to rescue veterans working on a railway.  High winds and an estimated 18-foot storm surge swept the train off the tracks.
Rescue workers search for victims’ bodies in the wreckage of one of the beachfront work camps that housed World War I veterans working on a federal highway construction project in the Florida Keys in the summer of 1935.  The workers wearing military caps are with veterans’ service organizations.  Behind them at the left is one of the hastily built cottages that housed the highway workers.  It has been turned upside down by the hurricane’s winds and storm surge.

The tragedy in the Florida Keys was yet another shameful chapter in a book about veteran mistreatment that our government is still adding chapters to:

My takeaway?

I’m glad I read When We Meet Again and The Last Train to Key West because two so-so books sent me on a research journey where I learned important information about our country’s history.  Some of it was discouraging, but all of it was worthwhile. 

Eventually, it was…

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