9 Books That Perfectly Channel The Spirit Of Florida
As a kid, I spent a lot of time in Florida — and I’m not talking Disney World (although there was some of that too, for sure.) And yeah, while the first things that come to mind when anyone mentions the Sunshine State are probably the aforementioned theme park, golfing retirees, and oranges, these books that celebrate the spirit of Florida prove there is definitely a lot more to the state than meets the eye. Heck, Miami alone is worthy of an entire shelf full of literature, and there are still another 480-some miles left of the state to explore.
The first time I ever took a flight by myself, in fact, I was on my way to meet my grandparents in Fort Myers — past the age when you wear your flight number and destination contact info pinned to your tee-shirt and the flight attendants give you double the snacks, but only just. I had been gifted my first-ever camera (a Kodak Star 110 for all you ‘90s babes) especially for the occasion, and I was headed straight for the Everglades to practice my National-Geographic-style photography skills. I still have a Ziplock full of hundreds of poorly developed pictures of snowy egrets, pig frogs, and alligators. If that little anecdote doesn’t have you searching for the cheapest Florida-bound flights ASAP, well, then maybe a few of the books on this list will.
Check out these ten books that perfectly channel the spirit of Florida.
1. The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
If you’re an animal lover, this book is going to make you really, really sad. If you’re a Florida lover, it’s also probably going to make you really sad, because The Yearling is all about how life in rural Florida can become awfully difficult, forcing hard-working people to make impossible choices in order to survive. The main character, 12-year-old Jody, and his family are subsistence farmers who are definitely not having an easy time of it. Then Jody rescues an orphaned deer and falls in love with it, which only leads to a whole lot more heartbreak. But it’s one of the classic Florida novels, and this list wouldn’t be complete without it.
2. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
So, I’m wary of exclamation points in general, and book titles ending in exclamation points definitely. But Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was one of the three finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and what kind of reader would I be if I let a little exclamation point deter me, amirite? Swamplandia! is a surreal book — vivid, and ambitious, and filled with characters and situations that almost seamlessly blend fantasy with reality, until you’re not totally sure what’s what. It's set in an alligator-wrestling theme park (of all places) on an isolated island in Florida, and is filled with the kind of magical realism that feels as though it might actually exist in real-life Florida too.
3. Birds of Paradise by Diana Abu-Jaber
There is something about the ever-looming threat of hurricanes that does seem to inform the spirit of Florida — and Diana Abu-Jaber’s Birds of Paradise finds her characters waiting for Hurricane Katrina’s arrival in Miami. In anticipation of the natural disaster, Avis Muir is reflecting on another disaster — her role in the disappearance of her teenage daughter years earlier. While the mother/daughter dynamics, coming-of-age experiences, sexual abuse, and self-forgiveness issues Birds of Paradise centers around could have happened anywhere, the entire story — and Abu-Jaber’s lyrical prose — is hugely informed by her Florida setting.
4. The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean
Investigative journalist Susan Orlean has a knack for making the bizarre and obscure absolutely fascinating. Her nonfiction book, The Orchid Thief, is no different. Taking you to the remote reaches of the Florida Everglades, The Orchid Thief dives into the underground world of black market flower trading, profiling some of the men and women who make their livelihoods from flower stealing, smuggling, and selling. It’s such a Florida-type crime, it’s hard to believe it’s even illegal. (But it is, so don’t do it.)
5. Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen
Carl Hiaasen is known for his stories about Florida — from thrillers and crime dramas to mysteries and humor — he captures the vibe of the state in every story he sets there. Stormy Weather takes place during another Florida hurricane, this time at the height of tourist season when the tumultuous weather mirrors the tumultuous atmosphere of myriad personalities clashing amidst the heat and humidity of the Everglades.
6. Miami by Joan Didion
If you ever need to understand a particular region of the world through a totally critical, politicized lens, Joan Didion is your go-to lady. Doing for Miami, Florida what she did for Los Angeles, San Francisco, El Salvador, and more, Didion writes about one of the most corrupt periods in modern Miami history — chronicling the city’s unofficial role in the Cold War and its position in the Nicaraguan Revolution, the influx of Cuban exiles and the city’s violent drug trade. It’s a shadowy, compelling little book.
7. To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway
For a writer known for his residence in Key West, it’s interesting that Ernest Hemingway only wrote one book set in Florida. To Have and Have Not is that book, a novel about a struggling fisherman named Harry Morgan, who begins transporting contraband goods between Cuba and Key West in order to earn enough money for his family. In true Hemingway style, this book is filled with complex characters, plenty of adventure, and just a smidgen of illegal activity.
8. Oranges by John McPhee
If you remain skeptical that an entire book about orchids will hold your attention for 200-some pages (I swear, it will) then buckle up, because John McPhee’s book Oranges is all about… you guessed it: oranges. And yeah, you'll never be so interested in oranges again, so drink it all in (puns rock.) The book investigates the lives and dramas of orange farmers, citrus scientists, people who are barely surviving off their environmentally-threatened orange crops, and those who are making millions off the fruit. You’ll even learn a whole lot about the nature of oranges themselves — different varieties, where they come from, what myriad products they’re used for. Suffice it to say you’ll never look at a smoothie the same way again.
9. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Considered one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place in the heady and humid landscape of a poverty-stricken, racially tense Florida, where local folklore rules and residents are in a constant battle — with themselves, with each other, and with the weather — to survive. This novel takes readers on a journey through the three marriages of Janie Crawford, a strong-spirited and independent woman who, despite one disappointment after another, refuses to give up on love.