A scandalous episode in 20th-century American history is exposed in Vanessa Lafaye’s début novel Summertime (Orion, January). In 1935, the Labor Day Hurricane became the strongest hurricane to make landfall in American history. It hit the Florida coastline with immense destructive force and winds exceeding an extraordinary 200mph. Among the 400 residents who lost their lives were many First World War veterans. Returning from the war to find themselves homeless, jobless and denied the bonus promised to them by the government, the veterans were shipped to the Florida Keys to live in camps and work on a construction project during the hurricane season, regardless of the risks. And when the earliest warnings of the hurricane started to trickle through, the government failed to act...
Lafaye, a Florida native who has lived in England for the past 30 years, came across the veterans’ tragedy by accident. She was visiting her family in Florida when she spotted a story in the morning newspaper about a horrific 1935 lynching in the state. It was a “spectacle lynching”—not only were people actually invited to watch, but the authorities had the opportunity to stop it, and chose not to. Lafaye was gripped: “It was just the beginning of my realisation of how ignorant I was of Florida’s history. You don’t think of Florida as being part of that kind of South, you think of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi.” Outraged that the perpetrators had never been punished, she originally decided that the story of the lynching would form the basis of her novel.
Back in England, she started researching in more detail. When she came across the 1935 hurricane, and the story of the veterans, she decided to make that the focus of her novel instead: “I thought it was such a disgrace that they were left to die like that . . . these veterans had been so badly treated and to be abandoned, to be left to die, I thought was unconscionable. So that was part of the passion that I think every author—and especially first-time authors—need to keep them going through all the obstacles you have to overcome to get a book published.”
Summertime opens in the fictional Heron Key, Florida, on the eve of the annual 4th July beach barbecue where—unusually in this racially divided town—black and white residents mix. The story unfolds from the point of view of four key characters: domestic help Missy; returning soldier Henry (who is also Missy’s beau), who lives at the veteran’s camp; Sheriff Dwayne Campbell; and wealthy, neglected society wife Hilda.
As the party gets underway, old tensions surface and, in the early hours, Hilda is found half-beaten to death. While wild accusations are hurled, far across the Atlantic a tropical storm gains strength and changes direction.
Summertime is part social history and part love story—Orion’s pitch is The Help meets The Perfect Storm—and Lafaye explains: “I wanted [Summertime] to about Henry’s struggle to be accepted as a human being. He had become an officer, he’d gone off to fight in the war. He deserved respect, and to be treated as well as anybody else. But as soon as he gets back to this small town, and as soon as a white woman is attacked, instantly he becomes the prime suspect.”
The novel touches on the sharp contrast between the way black American soldiers were treated in wartime France—i.e. simply respected as soldiers—and their reception back on home soil after the First World War. The returning men wanted better jobs and better pay, and “their new confidence terrified the whites into a hugely violent reaction”, says Lafaye. “It was even worse than if [the soldiers leaving to fight in the First World War] had never happened.”
Summertime (the title is taken from a song from the 1935 opera “Porgy & Bess” by George Gershwin) was written entirely in Lafaye’s adopted home of Marlborough, Wiltshire. But she was able to draw on her childhood memories of growing up on the edge of a Florida swamp—and first-hand experience of hurricanes. In the novel, the hurricane is a character in its own right, an extraordinary malevolent force which seems to whip across the pages as you turn them. That section of the novel is a powerful read, and unsurprisingly Lafaye found it a challenge to render into fiction: “The writing of the hurricane scene was so harrowing I would finish a passage and just have to go outside and breathe... it took a lot out of me emotionally.”
Third time lucky
Summertime is Lafaye’s first novel to find a publisher. While working in academic publishing she had written two novels in her spare time—contemporary women’s fiction—which gained her an agent but no deal. She stopped writing altogether when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, as the treatment sapped all of her creative energy.
Once in recovery, she read the Florida newspaper article, and was inspired to write again. “As soon as I started writing Summertime I knew it was different, and I knew it was better than anything I had done before... I suddenly realised I’d found the right genre.”
She enjoys the balancing act of historical fiction: “On the one hand you have a set of real events that need to be depicted accurately, and on the other hand you have a bunch of fictional characters that you are making up from scratch, and you have to weave the two together.” Every character in Summertime is fictional, but Lafaye says she is aware of the need to try “to be fair to the real people who lived this awful, awful experience. There are still people alive in Florida who went through this... Some of the ways [in which] I portray them in the book are not flattering. I expect there are going to be people who don’t like it.” All the events are true, though; perhaps most shockingly, with the hurricane looming, the black residents were forced to leave the storm shelter by the white locals.
Lafaye has a two-book deal with Orion, and her second will be a prequel to Summertime, featuring the same characters and set around the time of America’s entrance to the First World War. With both books she is hoping to shine a little light on some dark corners of American history. “I never imagined in my life that I’d end up writing a book about Florida from my home in Marlborough. I think it’s only because I’ve lived in England all this time that I was able to write this book. If I had carried on living in the US, I don’t know if I would have had that thing that distance gives you, that perspective to look back on the place I’m from.”
Formats £12.99 B-format HB/ £6.99 EB
ISBN 9781409155379 (HB)/ 9781409155409 (EB)
Rights sold US (Source), Norway, Italy, France, Germany and Holland
Editor Kate Mills, Orion
Agent Tina Betts, Andrew Mann Ltd
1963: Born in Tallahassee, FLorida
1985: Graduated with a BSc degree in Zoology from Duke University, North Carolina
1987-present: Relocated to the UK and began a career in academic publishing, working for OUP, Blackwell's and then Wiley, where she currently works as associate director for innovation strategy