Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Last Paradise by Michael Kasenow

Michael Kasenow takes the reader back to 1900 in Galveston, Texas. His narrative is different from most; instead of hearing Galveston's history from the rich and powerful, he shows it to us through the eyes of those who are poor and powerless. Ex-slaves, prostitutes, day laborers, card sharps and alcoholics, their day to day viewpoint of how the city worked is rare and fascinating. There are many interesting characters, but the book focuses on a man named Maxwell Hayes. Raised in a dysfunctional family, he broke away and has wandered the United States, drifting from job to job and leaving when situations arose that would tie him down. The defining time in his life was when he fell in love with a camp cook as a lumberjack. They were engaged when he came home to find that she had deserted him for another. This reinforced his inability to get close to other people.

Maxwell has wound up in Galveston, where he works as a laborer at a shipping company, loading and unloading merchandise. All he asks of life is enough money to survive and a bottle of alcohol now and then. He spends time with others like him. There is Blair, a black man whose life story starts as a slave and who now has a son about to go to college. Newt Haskins is a former Yale man who left to make a living as a card dealer and gambler and who also works as a laborer. There is a mentally challenged couple who is protected by the others in the group. Maxwell is fond of a prostitute named Fanny and close to her son, Cody. There is a veterinarian who has lost his license and a fishing boat captain. They provide a support group for each other, and help other group members get through life issues.

Things are about to change for Maxwell. One day Connor, the boss of the shipping company, comes to visit his empire, bringing his wife. Recognition is instant on both sides, as Connor's wife is Maxwell's first love. She wants to reinstate their relationship. As a complicating factor, her daughter Sara, is also attracted to Maxwell. The issue of how these relationships play out fuel much of the book's narrative.

Kasenow has obviously done significant research on Galveston's history. There are funny sections, such as the big shark-hunting contest entered by the group. The discrimination and difficulty of blacks in 1900 Texas is portrayed, along with the observation that one of the keys in ending racial discrimination was the lack of support by the big industrialists, who saw that Galveston was losing financial opportunities due to the way the rest of the country viewed the prejudice that existed there. One of the strongest parts of the book was the portrayal of the 1900 hurricane that killed thousands in Galveston. It is used to bring several plotlines together and to give resolution to the book. This book is recommended for lovers of historical fiction.

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