Cedar Key writer's first novel dips into Florida history in 'Not to Keep' | Book Review

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In her first novel, "Not to Keep," Rebecca Johnston’s storytelling brings people together.
In her first novel, "Not to Keep," Rebecca Johnston’s storytelling brings people together.

In her vivid first novel, "Not to Keep," Cedar Key writer Rebecca Johnston homes in on five Florida Cracker kids living in the Suwannee River-Gulf area of Florida in the 1910s. While their childhoods are rich with swimming and exploring wild creatures — the wars the boys go off 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 declares to his niece hearing the story: “Anne, there are things to be fixed which can’t be fixed, but I aim to try.” History can heal, the words imply.

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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 decoy and stab an alligator in the head. The swamp monster dies. But the gator proves too large to stuff into any car. Will explains that the group “had to cut the thing up inta smaller pieces.”

Meanwhile, the team of five has tricked the game warden by starting a rumor about them stealing crabs from their community and the Cedar Keys about 20 miles southwest.

And because “those were hungry times” in rural Panhandle Florida, a town-wide gator cook off feeds residents that night with meat to take home. “No one was talkin,’” Will says referring to the game warden, “and the evidence was all eaten or burned and buried.”

Rebecca Johnston's first novel, "Not to Keep," is about five Florida Cracker kids in the early 1900s.
Rebecca Johnston's first novel, "Not to Keep," is about five Florida Cracker kids in the early 1900s.

The kids live their fierce, joyous lives until World War I comes along. Like many, the boys think of it as “a grand adventure.”

And their families? “Boy, were our mamas proud.” When the boys enlist, the pastor calls them “emissaries of God.”

Just before they leave for war, Rosie and Ricky (one of the boys) get married because Rosie has gotten pregnant.

War changes everything. The boys find that training camp is ill-prepared. Three of four target practice rifles are wooden toy guns.

Serious injury and death come to the boys in France and Italy. When half of them return with brain, skin and limb damage, the town whispers about all of them, the dead and the still living, as if they were not all heroes.

Life in the 1920’s proves difficult for the remaining bunch in the swamps of northern Florida. Rosie runs a restaurant, and the men who’ve returned with the monster of war on their backs have a difficult time getting and keeping jobs.

Horrifying Florida events occur, too, like the Rosewood Massacre. And again, the story is not told from a “redneck” perspective. Will’s black friend Josh, another former soldier, nearly gets killed in the hanging of black men in the town. Josh and Will remain good friends.

Next, an experience of the Bonus Army in Washington, D.C., is jaw-dropping in its violence to and negligence of WW I soldiers. These war veterans go to DC to try to get a Veterans Administration started. They are chased away violently.

Sadly, as we all know, the next world war comes along. The remaining members of the little group head to Florida’s Southernmost Keys to work for the WPA. The former soldiers are boarded too near the water. The notorious 1935 hurricane hits. Earnest Hemingway makes an appearance in this section, taking some of the surviving former soldiers under his wing.

Though so much 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 back before your mama.”

Johnston is a Hemingway scholar and is working on her Ph.D. at the University of Exeter. She is an English professor at Sante Fe College in Gainesville and lives in Cedar Key with her husband and daughter.

Her research on the novel’s setting and era is woven within the trees, springs and local color. Fiction readers as well as historians and librarians will want this innovative book in their collections.

Mary Jane Ryals is a novelist and poet from Tallahassee who studied English/Creative Writing in the PhD Program at Florida State University. Her novels include "Cookie and Me," and "Cutting Loose in Paradise" and she’s working on a third novel set in the Cedar Key area.

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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Cedar Key writer's first novel dips into North Florida history