In a Surreal State

St. Petersburg Times (Florida)
October 24, 2004

DREAM STATE: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans, and Other Florida Wildlife
By Diane Roberts
Free Press, $25, 368pp

Reviewed by MARK ROTELLA
I grew up in St. Petersburg and moved to New York City for college. It's been almost 18 years now, but I'm drawn to the Sunshine State. I feel it's part of me. And although I live in New York, I still consider myself Southern, even though few here - or in Florida, for that matter - consider Florida the South. Besides, I'm still held accountable for Florida's foibles: Mention the 2000 Presidential election, and some of my friends still wrinkle their noses.

In Dream State, Diane Roberts offers insight into the complicated relationship many Floridians have with their state. In breathless, humorous prose, Roberts, a professor at the University of Alabama and contributor to the St. Petersburg Times, explores Florida's seemingly incongruous history through the lens of her own family - eight generations of "natives" from a time well before Florida had become an American territory in 1821.

She opens in November 2000 as hundreds of reporters from "up north" descend upon Florida's capital, Tallahassee, to report on the fallout of the presidential elections, trying to uncover the story behind the "dangling chads." Her narrative at first seems forced, awkwardly affected. But as politics give way to sports - when fans of the University of Florida Gators invade Tallahassee to play rival Florida State Seminoles - you see she is merely reporting the weird reality that is Florida: The football fans took over the hotel spaces, forcing northern reporters and out-of-town politicians to shack up in fraternity houses.

Roberts' cynicism toward and genuine affection for the state is evident as she illuminates the absurdities of the 27th state, "a state where people march around in black-felt mouse ears, a state that boasts the world's only professional clown school, a state where a good percentage of the population confuse dirty glass in Clearwater with the Virgin Mary and a small Cuban boy in Miami with Jesus Christ."

Since the time when Ponce de Leon landed on Florida shores searching for the fabled fountain of youth, she writes, "it was as if Florida were some kind of American reward: Live most of of your life in a place where you have to work in the cold. Then go south, where you can play like a child in the sun."

Roberts grew up in the 1960s within spitting distance of Tallahassee in Wakulla County, and her family willow tree droops with distinguished branches in an otherwise undistinguished state. Her grandfather, several greats removed, was French-born Francois Brouard who arrived during the American Revolution; but her relatives remember him as Broward, "forgetting ... that the first of our ancestors to become a Floridian was also a Frenchman."

From there she follows the discoveries of Ferdinand De Soto; the clashes between Spanish and French; the life of Princess Murat ("a kind of spiritual sorority sister"), who was the wife of Achille Murat, a relative of Napolean Bonaparte (another name that pops up in her family tree, Governor Napoleone Bonaparte Broward); and Andrew Jackson's instigation of the Seminole Indian wars against the likes of Chief Osceola, now the mascot of the Florida State Seminoles. Of course, the Civil War continues to be remembered: "In Florida, January 19, Robert E. Lee's birthday, is a legal holiday. Most people don't get time off work, though sometimes Lee's birthday and Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday coincide."

Roberts makes the case that Gov. Jeb Bush is not an anomaly - Florida has always been ruled by outsiders (in Roberts' mind, the "Andover-Yalie Bushes are Yankees in the strictest sense"). Florida is a largely protestant state founded by Catholics; a Southern state built by Northerners. It is a place where others come to reinvent themselves; it's a place where people follow their dreams, and in some cases impose them upon the entire state.

Those who did include Florida's first developers: Connecticut-born Henry Plant, who developed the West Coast (Tampa Bay readers will be disheartened that her family connections don't appear to reach this area), and Ohioan Henry Flagler, who built up the entire East Coat of Florida from St. Augustine (capitalizing on its reputation of being the oldest city in America) down to Palm Beach and Miami.

But mostly it's the prism of her Old Florida hometown through which she sees the rest of Florida grow. From Wakulla (where, incidentally Tarzan and Creature from the Black Lagoon were filmed) Roberts sees what is encroaching upon this tiny bastion of the Old South: "an endlessly repeating combination of McDonald's, Motel 6, Pizza Hut, Publix, and Wal-Mart, the DNA of modern Florida." A description that fits a good part of America.

At times Roberts' narrative wanders too far from Florida, as when she juxtaposes her student life in Europe with the travels of her grandfather. And readers not familiar with the Sunshine State may get lost in her long but entertaining catalog of people and places.

In the end though, Roberts gives personality to Florida, however schizophrenic a personality that may be. I am not a Florida native, but I do hold a claim on this state to which I had previously felt unentitled. Roberts has given me the excuse to impose upon Florida my own reality.

Mark Rotella is the author of Stolen Figs: And Other Adventures in Calabria.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO, ASSOCIATED PRESS; (2000) The Great Florida Chad Hunt, circa 2000.: Poll workers examine ballots for chads.