What’s it all about?:
Horrifying and beautiful, Summertime is a fictionalised account of one of the most devastating natural disasters in US history.
Florida Keys, 1935. Hurricane Season.
Tens of thousands of black and white men scarred by their experiences of war in Europe return home to find themselves abandoned to destitution by the US government.
The tiny, segregated community of Heron Key is suddenly overwhelmed by broken, disturbed men with new ideas about racial equality and nothing left to lose.
Tensions flare when a black veteran is accused of committing the most heinous crime of all against a white resident’s wife.
And not far off the strongest and most intense hurricane America has ever witnessed is gaining force.
For fans of The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird, this is the story of the greatest tragedy you’ve never heard of.
(Summertime is the title of the UK edition of Under a Dark Summer Sky)
What did I think?:
This book was chosen as part of the Richard and Judy Summer Reads 2015 here in the UK and as I’m a bit of a devoted follower of the club I knew I was going to read it soon and was very much looking forward to it. It had already attracted the attention of my biblio-radar after I read a few positive reviews online but I was still surprised about how much I actually enjoyed this book and as it’s also a debut novel (wow!) I predict great things for this author.
The story could be classed as a historical fiction novel as it takes place in 1935 and is based on an actual event – a devastating hurricane which hit Florida and the surrounding areas with a bang and is still the strongest and most intense hurricane to make landfall in the United States in recorded history. Our story begins in the fictional small town of Heron Key, a close community where everyone knows everyone else and unfortunately, usually their private business too. Just before the Second World War, racial inequality is still rampant and our black characters are often found in positions of servitude such as our main female Missy who works for a wealthy white man and his wife as a nanny/general dogsbody, helping them take care of their young baby.
Then we have the black war veterans who have finally been called back to the USA not to give thanks for their efforts during the First World War or to receive a promised bonus, but to help build a bridge. They are housed very inadequately in a camp unprotected from the scorching Florida heat and worked to the bone, many turning to drink to find a way of escape. The community are planning their annual July 4th barbecue, an event to which both whites and blacks are invited (as long as they keep to their side of the beach, of course), yet there is a simmering undercurrent of tension and anger which finally blows when Hilda Kincaid, Missy’s mistress, is brutally attacked and hovers close to death. Immediately, blame falls on the veterans, in particular a young man called Henry who is Missy’s love interest but is still trying to find out who he really is after the traumas he experienced in battle.
There are so many characters to get to grips with in this novel and all have their own personal troubles or tragedies to deal with. At no time though did I feel confused over who was who and what happened to which person as it was just delightful to read a story with so much going on. By the time the hurricane hits, the community is a melting pot of anger, fear and loathing and the disaster ends up bringing out the best and the worst in everyone. I absolutely loved the descriptions the author used as they painted such a vivid picture:
“People caught in the open were blasted by sand with such force that it stripped away their clothing”.
Of course the reality is that not everyone survives this monstrous occurrence but amidst the sadness and devastation, we are still allowed a teeny glimmer of hope for the future and it is certain that some will learn from their mistakes. One positive thing that emerged from the tragedy was the fate of the veterans – in that it was realized that they were never really given a chance to survive despite having had warnings that a hurricane was on its way.
From an outstanding beginning to a tense and suspense-filled ending this was my perfect kind of book. It was something that told an excellent story with all the right mix of love, horror and excitement to keep me turning the pages. I definitely learned a few things from this novel and it made me want to go and research the actual event a bit further, a true sign that the story had really got to me. The characters are all fantastic and I felt that some of them really got under my skin and had me questioning the world a little differently. It was also fascinating to learn that Ernest Hemingway was there at the time of the hurricane and later wrote an angry magazine article railing at the treatment of the veterans, so I think I’ll leave the last words to him, he says it all:
“It is not necessary to go into the deaths of the civilians and their families since they were on the Keys of their own free will; They made their living there, had property and knew the hazards involved. But the veterans had been sent there; they had no opportunity to leave, nor any protection against hurricanes; and they never had a chance for their lives”.
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):