The Last Train to Key West

The Last Train to Key West

by Chanel Cleeton


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Instant New York Times bestseller

One of Bustle’s Most Anticipated Books of Summer 2020
“The perfect riveting summer read!”—BookBub
In 1935 three women are forever changed when one of the most powerful hurricanes in history barrels toward the Florida Keys.

For the tourists traveling on Henry Flagler’s legendary Overseas Railroad, Labor Day weekend is an opportunity to forget the economic depression gripping the nation. But one person’s paradise can be another’s prison, and Key West-native Helen Berner yearns to escape.
After the Cuban Revolution of 1933 leaves Mirta Perez’s family in a precarious position, she agrees to an arranged marriage with a notorious American. Following her wedding in Havana, Mirta arrives in the Keys on her honeymoon. While she can’t deny the growing attraction to her new husband, his illicit business interests may threaten not only her relationship, but her life.
Elizabeth Preston's trip to Key West is a chance to save her once-wealthy family from their troubles after the Wall Street crash. Her quest takes her to the camps occupied by veterans of the Great War and pairs her with an unlikely ally on a treacherous hunt of his own.
Over the course of the holiday weekend, the women’s paths cross unexpectedly, and the danger swirling around them is matched only by the terrifying force of the deadly storm threatening the Keys.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451490889
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/16/2020
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 9,091
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Chanel Cleeton is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of When We Left Cuba and the Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick Next Year in Havana. Originally from Florida, she grew up on stories of her family's exodus from Cuba following the events of the Cuban Revolution. Her passion for politics and history continued during her years spent studying in England where she earned a bachelor's degree in international relations from Richmond, the American International University in London, and a master's degree in global politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Chanel also received her Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina School of Law. She loves to travel and has lived in the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia.

Read an Excerpt


Saturday, August 31, 1935


I've imagined my husband's death a thousand times. It starts, always, on the boat. There are waves, and perhaps some wind, and then he's pitched over the edge, into the sea, the water carrying him away on a strong tide, his head bobbing in the churn of turquoise and aqua, the vessel swaying to and fro in the middle of the ocean without another soul nearby to come to its aid.

Sometimes the image assaults me as I go about my day, hanging the laundry on the clothesline, the white sheets flapping in the breeze, the scent of lye on the air. Sometimes I ease into it, my thoughts lulling me away as I daydream, when I'm frying the fish Tom catches when he goes out on the Helen, a vessel with whom I share two things in common: a name, and the fact that our glory days have long since passed.

Other times it comes to me in sleep, and I jolt awake, my breaths harsh and ragged, mixing with the sound of my husband snoring beside me, his hairy arm thrown over my waist, his breath hot on my neck, the scent of gin oozing from his pores.

This morning, it's the dream, and when I wake, no arm holds me down; the space beside me is empty, an indent in the mattress from where my husband's body lay.

How could I have overslept?

I dress quickly, going through my morning ablutions efficiently in the water closet, hoping for the proper balance between looking pleasing and expediency. The tenor of our days is set in the mornings, in the early moments before Tom goes out to sea, the sun hours from showing its face.

If Tom is happy, if the weather is good, the fish plentiful, if I do as I am supposed to, it will be a passable day. If Tom isn't happy-

A wave of nausea hits me. Pain pulses at my abdomen, settling deep in my lower back, and I brace myself against the bedroom wall. The baby kicks, and I slide my hand down to catch the end of the movement.

These past few weeks, the baby has become more active, rolling and jabbing, pushing to make its way into the world now that the due date is near.

The nausea subsides, and I right myself, the pain passing as quickly as it came.

I walk from the bedroom to the main part of the cottage. Tom is seated at the table shoved into one corner of the open room that serves as our kitchen, living, and dining space.

When Tom first brought me here after our marriage nine years ago, it seemed the perfect place for us to start our life together-the home where we would grow our family. I scrubbed every inch of it until it shone, roamed the beaches when Tom was out to sea, and collected all sort of interesting things that had been cast ashore by boaters and smugglers, repurposing them as furniture we could ill afford to buy. The dining table where Tom's body looms was once a crate that likely carried contraband alcohol back in the day when doing so was a crime.

Where I once cleaned with pride for all of the possibility of what could be, I now see the loss of all we could have been, the house where I poured so many dreams just another promise left unfulfilled.

Floorboards are missing, paint peeling on the exterior, our living space shared with all manner of beasts and vermin that push their way inside all available nooks and crevices, the proximity to the water-not even fifty feet away-the only thing to recommend it.

Tom's boat is moored in the cove, within an easy distance. When Tom is at sea, the cottage is cozy, the mangroves surrounding us our protection from the outside world. When he is home, it is a pair of hands around my neck.

"Storm's coming," Tom rumbles, his back to me, the added weight from the baby making my footsteps heavier than usual, announcing my presence before I have steeled myself for the first moment of contact. His chair is positioned so he can gaze out the window at the ocean beyond. For a fisherman, the weather is everything.

"Rainstorm in the Bahamas," he adds, his voice gruff with sleep and an indescribable undertone that has developed through the years of our marriage. "It'll head this way eventually."

It was Tom's love of the sea that first drew me to him-the way the water clung to his skin, the faint taste of salt on his lips when he'd sneak a kiss, the wind in his hair, the sense of adventure when he would go out on his boat. I was younger then, just fifteen when we started dating, sixteen when we married, and I was drawn to things that seemed innocuous at the time-his big hands, the muscle and sinew in his tanned forearms, the broad shoulders built from days hauling boxes and crates of questionable origins. I thought he was a man who would keep me safe-another promise broken.

"Will the weather be bad?" I ask.

We get our fair share of storms down here in our little corner of the world. We've been fortunate we haven't had a strong one recently, but when I was just a girl, we had a nasty hurricane hit Key West. Luckily, no one died, but I still remember the wind blowing my parents' cottage around, the water threatening to engulf it. I was absolutely terrified.

"No one seems to think it's anything to worry about," Tom answers. "Heard on the radio that the Weather Bureau thinks it'll miss us."

"Will you go out on the water today?" I struggle to keep my tone light. I've learned not to press the issue of where he'll go or what he'll do. Times like these, a man will resort to all manner of things to put food on the table.

Tom grunts in acknowledgment.

I walk toward the countertop, careful to keep my body out of reach, my hip connecting with one of the knobs on the stove, my foot brushing against the icebox in the floor.

In a cramped cottage, in a cramped marriage, you learn to use the physical space around you as a buffer of sorts, to make yourself fluid and flexible, to bend to the will of another. But now, my body has changed, my stomach bloated, my limbs ungainly, and I've had to relearn the art of taking up as little physical space as possible-for me and the baby. It's difficult to be quick when you carry the extra weight of another.

I set Tom's breakfast in front of him.

He clamps down on my wrist, applying just the right pressure to make me wince, but not enough to make me fall to my knees. The state of our relationship isn't just evident in the physical condition of the cottage. I bear the marks of our marriage, too.

"Why do you want to know if I'm going out on the water?" he demands.

"I-I was worried. If the weather is bad, it'll be dangerous."

He tightens his grip, his fingernails digging into my skin. "You think I don't know my way around the sea? I've been fishing these waters since I was a boy."

My wrist throbs, my skin flashing hot as the pain crashes over me, my knees buckling beneath the weight of my belly and the pressure of his fingers.

I grab the edge of the table with my free hand, struggling to steady myself.

"I know. It's the babe. This close, I'm just nervous. I'm sorry-"

Words fail me as the pain crests, and I babble nonsensical things, anything to get him to let me-us-go, to stop this escalating into something more, something far worse than bruises on my wrist.

Tom releases me with a muttered, "Women," under his breath.

My wrist throbs as he shifts his attention to the food I prepared for him.

He digs into the johnnycakes with vigor, his anger momentarily forgotten.

He eats quickly, and I go about my morning routine straightening the kitchen, sounds breaking into the daydream I slip into like a well-worn dress-his fork scrapping across the plate, the chair sliding across the floor, the heavy footfalls that follow him out the door, until I am alone in the cottage on stilts once more.


Walking from our house to the restaurant where I waitress, my feet treading the familiar sandy ground, I pass lines of men trying to pick up extra work for the day. I'm lucky to have my job at Ruby's with the Depression going on, the opportunities few and far between, and even more so for women. But Ruby's nothing if not loyal, and she's kept me on in good times and bad.

As the "Southernmost City," Key West is the end of the road, the farthest you can venture in the United States before your feet meet water. Such a distinction brings all manner of people: wanderers, criminals, people wanting to get lost, people wanting to get found, as though anything is possible down here at the edge of the world-for most of us anyway. It used to be, you had to have a boat to get here, but now there's the railroad that runs over the ocean, connecting the little islands that make up the Keys to the mainland and Miami, the total journey spanning over one hundred and fifty miles and a few hours' time, an ambition Mr. Henry Flagler-one of the richest men in the country when he was alive-was ridiculed for when he announced the project decades ago. But Mr. Flagler pressed on, and the railroad was built, bringing jobs to people like my father-native Conchs-and men who came down to the Keys searching for work who laid the tracks for the Key West Extension with their bare hands.

The railroad's one of the greatest things man's ever built, Daddy would say. Can you imagine? Flying over the ocean in one of those big machines?

I couldn't.

What sort of men dreamed of building things like floating railroads? What sort of people rode in them?

Daddy told me there were two kinds of people in this world:

The people who built things with their own two hands, and the kind of people who enjoyed the things others built. But then the Depression came, proving to be the great equalizer.

A long time ago, before I was born, Key West was the largest and wealthiest city in Florida. But even before the rest of the country felt the effects of the crash in '29, Florida struggled. Money and credit ran out, and problems have plagued the citrus crop. Now, people are out of work, hungry, and desperate, the city bankrupt, our fortunes anything but certain, thousands moving north with the hope of a better life.

There's some help from the government, which I suppose is better than no help, but it's never quite enough. They're trying to fix up the city, shipping veterans from the Great War down to the Keys to work on a new piece of highway linking Grassy Key and Lower Matecumbe.

At the corner of Trumbo Road and Caroline Street, I pass the railroad station as I have nearly every day for the past nine years. Beyond it lie the new docks. The Florida East Coast Car Ferry Company offers daily service to and from Havana, Cuba. They load dozens of freight cars onto the boats, taking them, cars, and passengers across the sea. Flagler's vision of connecting New York City to Havana is made possible by a few days of travel on his railroad plus several hours' ferry journey from Key West.

The familiar worn sign comes into view when I arrive in the parking lot of Ruby's.

Our proximity to the railroad station and the ferry terminal inspires visitors, the locals attracted by the possibility to gawk at the newcomers and take advantage of Ruby's low prices. Ruby doesn't hold much with pretensions, and it shows, the decor simple, the food hearty. It's the sort of place whose measure you take as soon as you walk through the doors, a restaurant that relies more on the food to recommend itself than the atmosphere.

We keep a steady pace of customers from the moment I arrive to midday, and I move from table to table, an ache settling in my back, the baby pressing down low. In the free moments when I'm able to sneak a break, I stand in the rear of the restaurant, leaning against the wall to relieve some of the pressure. The smells coming from the kitchen are nearly too much for my stomach, but at this point in the pregnancy, I'm so eager to take some weight off my feet it hardly matters.

The front door opens with a loud clang of the overhead bell, an awkward crash, the flimsy wooden structure no match for the large man whose hand rests on the handle. Heads turn, the noise rising above the sounds of the kitchen, the diners' conversations. The newcomer's cheeks redden slightly as he ambles through the door and gently guides it closed behind him.

I don't have to look to know which table he's taken. For the past several months, he's become a regular fixture in the restaurant even as he keeps to himself and his corner. The only thing I know about him is his first name-John-and even that was offered reluctantly months ago.

"Your favorite customer is back," Ruby says with a wink from her perch in the kitchen as she wipes her hands on the apron tied around her waist. As far as bosses go, Ruby and her husband are about as good as you can get. They pay a fair wage considering the times, and they have a tendency to keep an eye out for the staff from the kitchen they run. If a customer gets too friendly or too rowdy, Ruby and Max are always ready to swoop in. Ruby's not exactly what you'd call sociable, and she's content to keep to the cooking and leave the greeting and serving to me and the other waitress, Sandy, but over the years she's become more than just my employer-a friend of sorts, I suppose.

"Must be payday judging by how many of them have trickled down here this weekend. He seems hungry today," she adds.

"He always looks hungry," I retort, ignoring the amusement in Ruby's voice and the gleam in her eye.

"It's funny how he always eats here, isn't it?" Ruby drawls. "Real curious."

"It must be for the key lime pie," I reply, keeping my tone bland. "Everyone knows you make some of the best key lime pie in Key West."

The Key Lime pie isn’t just a popular choice because Ruby’s is the best in town. People still have to eat as best they can, and pie’s one of the cheapest things on the menu.

Ruby smiles. “I’m sure that’s what brings him here—the Key Lime pie.”

John is always polite, definitely quiet, but no one who gets within a few feet of him can miss the fact that he’s clearly seen some ugly things in his time and carries them in a manner that suggests for him the war is far from over. He shouldn’t make me nervous—he always tips better than most and he’s never given me any trouble—but there’s something about him that reminds me so much of Tom that it nearly steals my breath when I’m around him.

When I set his food on the table before him, it’s as though another man sits in his stead, with the same immense size, the power to use that physical advantage to inflict harm, and I instinctively wait for his meaty hand to seize my wrist, for him to overturn the plate of food because it wasn’t hot enough when I brought it to him, to throw his meal at me because he’s tired of eating the same thing every day and don’t I know how hard he works, what it’s like out there on the water, don’t I appreciate all the food he puts on my plate when so many have so little, when people are hungry, how can I be so ungrateful, so—

And suddenly, I’m not back in the little cottage where all manner of sins are hidden by man and mangroves, but at Ruby’s, my breaths coming quickly now.

“You all right?” Ruby asks.

I nod.

Reading Group Guide

Readers guide for The Last Train to Key West
Questions for Discussion

1. At the beginning of the novel, Helen says, “People are what circumstances make them.” Do you agree with her statement? Why or why not? Are there places in the book where this sentiment seems to be true? How do the characters demonstrate this?

2. The hurricane hits Key West in 1935, during the Great Depression. What effect does the Depression have on the characters, on the setting? How do larger world events shape characters’ lives in the book?

3. What parallels do you see between the effects the hurricane has on the characters and that of fighting in the Great War?

4. How is the treatment of the veterans of the Great War similar to the problems faced by society during the Great Depression? Were you surprised to hear about the veterans’ lives after they came home from the war and some of the challenges they faced?

5. Helen and John have both experienced trauma. How does it shape them? What similarities do you see between their experiences and the way they cope with them? What differences?

6. Mirta and Elizabeth both come from wealthy families that have fallen on hard times. What similarities do you see in their personalities? What differences? How do those similarities and differences influence the choices they make throughout the novel?

7. The Last Train to Key West alternates between Helen’s, Mirta’s, and Elizabeth’s perspectives. Which character did you identify with most? How do they grow and change throughout the novel?

8. Elizabeth tells Sam that the Depression has been particularly hard on women. What examples do you see throughout the book where women’s lives are influenced by society’s expectations for them? How do they react to these expectations?

9. During the Depression, marriage rates dropped significantly. At the same time, marriage plays an important role in the characters’ lives. How do the heroines’ views on marriage change throughout the novel? Do the women find power in their relationships?

10. Mirta and Anthony’s marriage changes throughout the novel. What shifts do you see in their relationship? What roles do they take on and how do they evolve in those roles?

11. All of the main characters are searching for something at the start of the novel. Do you they ultimately find what they were looking for? How does the journey change them? What were they really searching for to begin with?

12. The characters’ lives are largely shaped by the hurricane and its aftermath. Have you ever experienced a natural disaster? How did the experience influence you?

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