Summertime takes place in 1935 in the fictional town of Heron Key, Florida, where the inhabitants have an uneasy relationship with each other, mainly due to racial segregation. We have a variety of protagonists, the main ones being Missy, a coloured maid to the wealthy Kincaid family; Henry Roberts, a coloured veteran who is Missy’s love interest; and Dwayne Campbell, the local sheriff whose wife has just given birth to a mixed race baby.
For Missy, her life has been on hold since Henry Roberts walked out of town eighteen years ago and all the early promise she showed as a child has never come to fruition. Missy has stopped dreaming of a brighter future, but Henry’s return sends her into a tailspin. As Henry and Missy spend more time together, she realises he isn’t the same man who left her all those years ago but she can’t help believing they have a future together. However, storm clouds are gathering over the town in more ways than one as one of the strongest hurricanes in American history is about to hit.
For Henry, the return to Heron Key is a revelation as his renewed acquaintance with Missy rekindles something within him he thought was long dead. Henry left to fight in the First World War but when he returned home, it wasn’t long before he realised all the promises the government had made were nothing but empty words. Disgruntled, Henry has been wandering from state to state, taking part in demonstrations against the government, but finally returns to Florida with little belief in the future. Residing in the camp at the outskirts of town, Henry tries to keep the other veterans in line but it is a hard task since the white ones don’t take too kindly to a black man issuing orders. Henry finds solace with Missy but any hopes of a relationship are thwarted when rumours begin to circulate he’s fathered a child with a white woman. To make matters worse, the white woman in question is the wife of the sheriff who takes revenge by arresting Henry for a brutal assault on Hilda Kincaid. Despite being innocent on both counts, Henry knows the word of a black man holds no weight against that of a white man, and he takes desperate measures to ensure his freedom.
When his wife gives birth to a mixed race child, Dwayne Campbell is determined to discover the identity of the man who fathered the child but his wife is equally determined to stay quiet. At a loss, Dwayne seems content to accept the child as his but his anger is unleashed when local gossip points the finger at Henry Roberts despite the fact Henry has barely exchanged two words with the sheriff’s wife. However, Dwayne’s attention is diverted when Hilda Kincaid is found nearly beaten to death after the annual Fourth of July barbecue and as the general opinion seems to be towards a veteran being guilty, Dwayne is delighted when the evidence gives him an excuse to arrest Henry Roberts. Despite his determination to see justice done, Dwayne’s conscience niggles at him but before he can put matters right, he finds himself fighting to keep his family safe as the hurricane unleashes itself on the town.
The hurricane is practically a character in its own right in this novel as it is brewing steadily in the background as the tensions between the townspeople intensify but it takes a long time to arrive. The events described in this book are a fictionalised account of the Labour Day hurricane which struck in 1935 and killed 485 people: 257 veterans and 228 civilians. The presence of the veterans in Florida was a fact, and the author also describes the ill-conceived train rescue which proved to be far too late to be effective. The author’s afterword describes how the apparent indifference of the government towards these veterans provoked one of the biggest scandals in American history.
The racial tension, the veterans and the approaching hurricane, are all ingredients for an amazing story and the author does a good job of threading them together, however I really didn’t feel the sense of loss such a tragedy should have evoked. A big part of the problem is down to the numerous points of view because the novel is nowhere near long enough for us to get to know each character as deeply as we need in order to care about their subsequent welfare during the hurricane. The veterans are also nowhere near prominent enough for us to get a real understanding of their situation so I didn’t feel as angry as I should’ve been. I would’ve preferred the narrative to have stayed with Henry so his link between the veterans and the townspeople could’ve been exploited more.
Out of the two charges made against Henry, the assault on Hilda Kincaid is by far the most interesting and since Florida had one of the highest rates for lynching, it is absolutely chilling when you realise Henry could’ve been easily hanged despite his innocence. Although the real culprit behind Hilda’s assault is discovered, the thread is more or less dropped in the aftermath of the hurricane and Dwayne is never seen to show any remorse for his actions which is I suppose how it would’ve been.
Foe me, the book really comes into its own when the hurricane strikes and Lafaye’s writing goes up a gear. The devastation of the hurricane unleashing its deadly force on the townspeople is written in such a descriptive way, you can certainly feel the terror these poor people must have endured. There is a certain satisfaction when some unsavoury characters meet their end and the blacks being refused entry into an already overcrowded shelter comes as no surprise but is no less horrifying. Lafaye had a good grasp for the setting and an excellent feel for the era, so it is just the characterisation I feel is a bit weak.
Incidentally, this book was published in the US under the title Under A Dark Summer Sky which I think fits the novel far better than Summertime. It infuriates me sometimes when publishers do this and this one in particular makes no sense to me.