Sunday, May 26, 2013

Book Review: "Finding Florida" by T. D. Allman

I started reading this book* on a rainy Friday evening. I finished it about 4:30 PM on Sunday. As much as I love reading fiction, I think I love history more. This book had the advantage of being history well-written, with passion -- about a place I love. I couldn't put it down.

Anybody who thinks they might want to move to Florida should read this; hopefully it will dissuade you from making the move. People who already live here should read it, too, but I think a lot of them would be very offended by it. Oh, well. Even I was put off by some of the author's opinions, but I think the man deserves credit for his historical research, even if I occasionally disagreed with his conclusions.

I have always wondered why it annoys me (to the point of pissing me off!) when people refer to Florida as "Paradise." Florida is most definitely NOT Paradise. It is a weird place surrounded by water and filled with a gators, bugs, and an endless array of strange, bizarre and even some really scary people. I like living here because it is warm most of the time and it has a magnificent variety of beaches. I've learned to tolerate the bad stuff in exchange for living at the beach. The fact that I like living here doesn't make it Paradise. I delighted in how thoroughly Allman burst [er, annihilated] the Paradise Myth.

I was captivated by so many stories I'd never read about my adopted home -- and I've probably read more Florida history than most people who were born here. I was entertained by the writing. (It isn't often that I laugh out loud reading a history book, but this one made me do that several times.) Allman is a great writer. The bizarre-ness of Florida that novelists like Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey have immortalized in fiction, is here in well-researched, non-fiction format. It is still funny as hell.

Much of it is also infuriating. Throughout most of the book Allman's own fury is barely contained, and a few times he totally cuts loose. (At times, he reminded me of a male Molly Ivins. That is the highest possible praise I can offer to a writer.)

It didn't take long for the European explorers to discover what an inhospitable wilderness Florida is. Neither Spain nor Britain really wanted it. Ultimately, after the European superpowers played ping pong with it for a couple of centuries, Spain unloaded it on the US because Florida was just more trouble than it was worth. I think an argument could be made that it's been more trouble than it is worth to the US, too, but it's here, like a pimple on Uncle Sam's butt, and we can't get rid of it ... unless, of course, we wanted to annex it to Cuba. That might not be such a bad idea, but if we did that where would all the New Yorkers retire?

When people from up North tell me they'd like to move to Florida, I tell them to bring plenty of money with them because they're not going to make any here. Basically Florida is designed to be a place where people from other places come for short periods of time, spend a lot of money and then leave (preferably, broke enough not to come back anytime soon). Allman spends several hundred pages explaining why that is the case.

The class system in Florida (which truly borders on a caste system where multiple layers of society exist, barely interacting with the other layers at all) is very rigid. There's not a lot of upward social mobility, but the down elevator works just fine.

At the end of the book, I hear Allman whispering in my ear that Florida is an example of what could happen to the rest of America as the haves and have-nots fly further apart and the moderating middle class erodes. Florida has never had a real "middle class" because it disallowed homesteading and there was no industry to employ middle class workers. Florida is an "Upstairs, Downstairs" kind of a place, where there is the "aristocracy" of retired old people and rich developers,  and then there is the (growing) "poor" --  with not much in between. 

History tells us that is a dangerous social environment, which leads to insurrection or social collapse (or both). I think Allman makes a good case that Florida holds up a warning to the rest of the US, and maybe the world. Florida is a very good example of how NOT to run a state.

I don't see any signs that the folks in Tallahassee have got that memo.  That isn't for lack of trying on Mr. Allman's part.  He pulls no punches and his anger burns hot from time to time, but his point of view never waivers from that of a native son who loves his home state, despite its manifold flaws and abysmal [cough, cough] "leadership."

[Aside: You have to read the book all the way to the end to understand this: I used to like getting caught at the drawbridge on my way to work. It gave me the opportunity to enjoy a few minutes of quiet time, watching the boats on the river and doing nothing. Mr. Allman's final salvo totally ruined that forever.  Damn!]

Buy it here*.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for your insightful comments on my book, Finding Florida.

    Is there an email address where I could reach you? You can contact me at

    Thanks again for your intelligent analysis.

    TD Allman