Florida has long been a place people run away to, a place to reinvent yourself and leave the past behind, as attested by its long and notorious history as adopted home to every variety of con artist imaginable.
Sarah Gerard was born and raised here. Sunshine State, her new collection of essays, is animated by the awareness of a native who knows Florida, for better and for worse, and wants to get at the truths inside the cons.
Gerard grew up in Pinellas County. Her mother, Pat Gerard, served as Largo's mayor and is now a Pinellas County commissioner. Her father, Eric Gerard, was a newspaper reporter at the Evening Independent and later ran an advertising agency.
Gerard, who's in her early 30s, published a well-reviewed novel, Binary Star, in 2015. In Sunshine State, she writes nonfiction, about her youth and family and also about what seem like typical Florida subjects — pyramid schemes, public figures who go off the rails, subdivisions full of McMansions — but she never writes about them in typical ways.
Sunshine State is a sort of memoir, its essays ranging widely in style and degree of intimacy. Some are clearly personal, like the first essay, "BFF," a simmering prose poem about one of those brink-of-adolescence friendships that can be among the most intense relationships of one's life. Addressed in second person to "you," it chronicles all the ways the friendship goes bad but concludes with a crystal of memory: "This is the before time: before the real hurt came. We exist in the perfect sweetness of girlhood with our feet in a pool, with matching bathing suits, with egrets stalking through the grass behind us and lizards wending their subtle ways across leaves. We are diving in the water. We're clean."
"Records," another personal essay, is darker, set when Gerard was a student in the arts magnet program at Gibbs High School. It captures the woozy, surreal life of a kid who spends days practicing fiercely for a demanding singing recital and nights doing ecstasy at raves under the Sunshine Skyway and having complicated relationships with inadvisable boyfriends — discipline and abandon in a fascinating dance.
Some of the book's longer essays span Gerard's personal life and larger subjects on which she reports journalistically, like "Mother-Father-God." It recounts her mother's abusive first marriage, her escape from it and her marriage to Gerard's father. That union hits a rocky patch that leads the family to intense involvement in Unity-Clearwater, a church for a faith historically related to Christian Science that emphasizes spiritual healing and prosperity. For a while, that faith is all-consuming — until it's not.
The same is true of another enthusiasm the family embraces: Amway (less religion, more prosperity gospel). In "Going Diamond," Gerard traces the history of Amway, "a multilevel marketing corporation. Some call it a pyramid scheme. In 2015, its parent company, Alticor, claimed transglobal sales of $9.5 billion."
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Amway was founded by Rich DeVos, father-in-law of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and Gerard notes the family's longtime political involvements. Rich DeVos has a Florida home, of course, in Windsor, "where you go when you bypass Palm Beach. ... There's no such thing as class in Windsor — everyone is as rich as everybody else. In Windsor, Rich DeVos can catch some rays in peace. No one bothers him about 'ethical this' and 'fraudulent that.' "
Gerard and her parents are swept up in the company's promises of success, always measured in extravagant material terms — although, she notes, many Amway sellers make in the neighborhood of $200 a month from it. Gerard weaves into the essay a series of visits she makes, posing as a potential buyer, to new houses in Pinellas County subdivisions. The houses are ridiculously large and stuffed with useless amenities, yet just as seductive as those Amway promises. "I think of my family's time in Amway as achievement tourism," she writes. "We left reality for a moment and believed the impossible was possible." How Florida is that?
Even more Florida is the title essay. It's the strange saga of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores and its founder, Ralph Heath, from their days of golden promise to their mutual collapse into chaos.
Gerard works at the sanctuary as a volunteer to research the story, remembering it from childhood as an idyllic spot. "I thought I would write an essay about birds," she tells us. "I felt I was on the trail of something ancient. I felt I was hunting something powerful and primal."
The sanctuary, founded in 1971, certainly had its glory days, helping, for example, to bring brown pelicans back from the brink of extinction. At its height, it had 100,000 visitors a year. Heath, a son of privilege himself who made a glamorous marriage to a scion of the Busch brewing fortune, had more than 15 minutes of fame.
But by the time Gerard comes on the scene, the sanctuary's finances are collapsing. Heath is divorced, estranged from his sons and most of his friends, getting into trouble for things like trying to sell the same Corvette to two different buyers on eBay.
He's spending most of his time in a warehouse where he keeps some 700 birds — "The scene had a post-apocalyptic wash" — as employees struggle to keep the sanctuary afloat. (It recently reopened under the control of Heath's family as the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary.)
Still, Heath tells Gerard that he can't let an animal die if there's any way to keep it alive. She relates that to an employee.
" 'I watched him cry for seventy-two hours straight over Snowball dying,' Jimbo said. 'That was a pigeon. And he didn't shed a tear for his mother. ... He really is committed to birds.' "
How Heath goes from seabird savior to a bird-stuffed warehouse that gets 54 violation notices from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is a haunting story — again, one of believing the impossible is possible — that Gerard tells with insight and skill.
Florida is often played for laughs in literature, but Gerard knows it too well to do anything that simple. The shadows bring depth to Sunshine State.
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.