In her vivid first novel, “Not to Keep,” Cedar Key writer Rebecca Johnston focuses on five Florida Cracker children who lived in the Suwannee River-Gulf area of Florida in the 1910s. is rich in swimming and exploration of wild creatures, the wars that the children go to later bring no joy.
Will, whose twin brother is named Mil, narrates the story in a Panhandle dialect. Will lies on his deathbed and tells his niece listening to the story, “Anne, there are things to fix that can’t be fixed, but I intend to try.” History can heal, the words imply.
Myron’s role:‘The 2% Way’: Book Reveals Former ‘Nole Myron Rolle’s Roadmap to a Life of Meaning and Purpose
Children book:Read it this way: Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels promotes self-esteem in Tallahassee with new children’s book
Book Review:Set in Panacea, ‘Confetti’ nods to the author’s previous ‘Surf Dog’ | Book Review
In this historical novel, Johnston’s storytelling brings people together rather than using the rugged individual trope regarding life, turning the redneck meme on its head.
On one adventure, these curious kids use a chicken as a decoy and stab an alligator in the head. The swamp monster dies. But the alligator is too big to put in any car. Will explains that the group “had to cut the thing into smaller pieces.”
Meanwhile, the team of five have fooled the ranger by starting a rumor about crabs being stolen from their community and Cedar Keys, about 20 miles to the southwest.
And because “those were hungry times” in rural Florida’s Panhandle, a citywide alligator cook feeds residents that night take-home meat. “No one was talking,” Will says of the ranger, “and all the evidence was either eaten or burned and buried.”
The children live fierce and joyful lives until the First World War comes. Like many, the boys think of it as “a great adventure.”
And their families? “Wow, our moms were proud.” When the boys enlist, the pastor calls them “emissaries of God.”
Just before leaving for the war, Rosie and Ricky (one of the boys) get married because Rosie is pregnant.
War changes everything. The boys discover that the training camp is poorly prepared. Three of the four target practice rifles are wooden toy pistols.
Serious injuries and death reach the boys in France and Italy. When half of them return with brain, skin, and limb damage, the city whispers about them all, the dead and those still living, as if they weren’t all heroes.
Life in the 1920s proves difficult for the remaining group in the swamps of North Florida. Rosie runs a restaurant, and the men who have returned with the monster from the war on their backs find it difficult to get and keep a job.
Horrible events also happen in Florida, like the Rosewood Massacre. And again, the story is not told from a “redneck” perspective. Will’s black friend Josh, another ex-soldier, nearly died in the hanging of black men in town. Josh and Will are still good friends.
Next, an experience of the Bonus Army in Washington, DC, is staggering in its violence and neglect of World War I soldiers. These war veterans go to DC to try to start a Veterans Administration. They are violently chased away.
Unfortunately, as we all know, the next world war is coming. The remaining members of the small group head to the southernmost Florida Keys to work for the WPA. The ex-soldiers are accosted too close to the water. The notorious 1935 hurricane hits. Earnest Hemingway makes an appearance in this section, taking some of the surviving ex-soldiers under his wing.
Although there is so much that haunts these Northwest Panhandlers, Johnston, the writer, uses an honest narrator in Will, who keeps things real. He implores his niece, “I need you to see how things were, even before your mom.”
Johnston is a Hemingway Scholar and is working on her Ph.D. at the University of Exeter. She teaches English at Sante Fe College in Gainesville and lives on Cedar Key with her husband and her daughter.
His research into the setting and era of the novel intertwines with trees, springs, and local color. Fiction readers as well as historians and librarians will want this groundbreaking book in their collections.
Mary Jane Ryals is a Tallahassee novelist and poet who studied English/Creative Writing in Florida State University’s doctoral program. Her novels include “Cookie and Me” and “Cutting Loose in Paradise” and she is working on a third novel set in the Cedar Key area.
Never miss a story – subscribe to the Tallahassee Democrat using the link at the top of the page.