When the subject comes up, which is often, I always remind people that Florida is not necessarily the weirdest state in the union. I’ve lived in quite a few states and they are all weird in their own way. But lately, I’m starting to wonder if Florida might not deserve some special distinction.
Not just because it’s the home of rogue pythons, bugs the size of parrots and Rep. Ted Yoho. I’ve been reading T.D. Allman’s Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State. Even if you toss out half of what he says as hyperbole and screed — which might be wise — it’s hard not to conclude that rational people should probably seek their fortunes elsewhere.
The history of Florida is bleak indeed. It’s a long yarn involving geology, climate and human rapaciousness. Allman sums it up thusly: “People are constantly ruining Florida; Florida is constantly ruining them back.”
According to Allman, it started with the Spaniards, who came ashore 500 years ago looking for gold in the only area in North America with no metals at all. Like all the would-be conquerers who would follow — the French, the British and finally the get-rich-quick Americans — they found little to do but massacre or enslave anybody else in sight.
Florida didn’t even have decent farmland. Its only marketable resource turns out to waterlogged real estate — and more hot, sunny days than are strictly necessary. Even that’s not been a sure thing. Allman provides numerous examples of speculators who dreamt of profit and found ruination instead. Florida’s sinkholes are real, but they’re also pretty good metaphors for what can happen to the heedless greedy in these parts.
Walt Disney is one of the exceptions, of course. According to Allman, that’s because he was able to lie, bend laws and evade taxes with aplomb. Damn! The avuncular old gent I loved as a kid turns out to be as big a scoundrel as the rest of them! Although it must be noted that he didn’t massacre anybody.
That’s pretty much the tone of the book: Sarcastic, even bitter in places, with a strong emphasis on demolishing schoolboy myths. For example, Ponce de Leone was basically a murderous swine, and neither he nor his Indian victims had ever heard of the ludicrous Fountain of Youth now celebrated in St. Augustine. That’s not exactly a news flash, but it bears repeating. History is interesting enough; you don’t need to invent landmarks and make heroes of people who weren’t.
I like the book, even if it’s not as fully reliable as it might be. Allman can turn a phrase, and he does illuminate some dark corners of Florida history. But he is the Keith Olbermann of historians: No pretense of objectivity, and not much nuance when evaluating Good People and Bad People. In his view, there are a lot more of the latter than the former, and they are pretty much all Republicans these days.
Still, I’d recommend the book. Especially if you’re planning a trip to the Sunshine State any time soon.