April Read of the Month: “Oh, Florida: How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country,” by Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

With Oh, Florida, a book that defies easy categorization, award-winning journalist Craig Pittman has penned a definite winner.

Oh, Florida is nonfiction, though its legends and lore add a devilish charm and a wicked-fast pace more commonly associated with Florida thrillers and their motifs of death, crime and gore; their alligators, pythons, blood-sucking mosquitoes, and sharks; their sandspurs, sinkholes, hurricanes, and swamps; and their land booms and busts, and of course the Mouse that Roared. Yet Oh, Florida also highlights the amazing natural beauty of the state and its diverse cultures, and portrays the state as a land of golden opportunities.

Oh, Florida is fun, but not trite or superficial. It’s a serious examination of how events and people in Florida have influenced the rest of the country. For example, Pittman explains how the USA Today newspaper had its start in Florida; how a former Florida beauty queen jump-started the gay rights movement (in a classic of unintended consequences sort of way); how a relatively benign small-time criminal forever changed the American justice system; how Florida helped put men on the moon—and countless other ways in which events in Florida impacted the nation.

Several Florida myths are clearly exposed as such, and the book remains on rock-solid grounds in terms of accuracy. Pittman’s research and the sheer volume of information in Oh, Florida are nothing short of awe-inspiring.

But what kind of book is Oh, Florida exactly? Is it travel, history, memoir, true crime, all of the above, or something else?

Oh, Florida was on the New York Times bestseller list for travel books, yet it’s not a guidebook. Oh, sure, there are towns, sights, and locations mentioned here that will intrigue potential tourists—like Weeki Wachee Springs, for example, a natural springs famous for its mermaid shows. But rather than simply pitch the springs as an attraction, like something in Birnbaum’s Guide to Disney, Pittman discusses the history and geology of Weeki Wachee Springs, beginning with the state’s karst geology and its vast underground aquifer.

In keeping with the travel-book theme, Pittman also mentions—among many other sites—Cedar Key, a once relatively undeveloped, beautiful island due west of Gainesville, in the Gulf of Mexico. But there’s no list of places to eat or of the best bed and breakfast inns in his discussion of Cedar Key. Rather, Pittman—consistent with the subtitle of the book—explains how an epiphany in Cedar Key inspired John Muir to found the Sierra Club, and, thus, to influence the environmental movement throughout the rest of the county.

The most “touristy” thing mentioned in the book—Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom—really doesn’t come off so swell. Pittman, showing his award-winning journalistic knack for an exposé, explains how Walt Disney and his cronies gobbled up land on the sly and the cheap, wheedled from the legislature unheard-of power and state-funded goodies like new highway interchanges, a wider I-4, and bonding authority, and then created something called the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which governs the 27,000 acres that the Disney team skunked away from mostly local farmers.

If, then, Oh, Florida is not quite a travel-guide type of book, maybe it’s a history book? Yet Pittman says that Oh, Florida is not a history book. Notwithstanding that denial, the book contains a bucket load of utterly fascinating history from the obscure to the oft-told (and usually erroneously so) story of Ponce de Leon’s search for the fountain of youth.

Maybe Pittman doesn’t convey the state’s history chronologically and in the “disaster format” of some traditional history books, and maybe his penchant for the wacky (or the wacky substructure) of the stories tends to camouflage just how much detailed, accurate, and often chilling history he does tell in Oh, Florida. Consider the intertwined history of Florida’s infamous “stand your ground” law, the State Bird (the mockingbird) and a woman named Marion Hammer, who claimed that in 1980 a carload of drunks accosted her with evil on their minds. Oh, there’s a hurricane and a shot-dead FEMA contractor in that “stand your ground” history lesson too, but you’ll need to read the book for the whole story.

If it’s not history, then might Oh, Florida be classified as a memoir? Pittman is that rarest of creatures—a native Floridian in a state that has fewer natives than any of the 50 states except Nevada. Pittman generously shares some of the funny—and not so funny—moments in his childhood and life that make him love his native state. One especially enlightening story involves a young Pittman falling into a Florida river and being pulled under by the current. He recalls the rippling water closing over him beneath the bright, blue sky above, when he was struck by the beauty of what seemed like the last thing he’d ever see. Just before the river claimed him, he grabbed hold of a rope and saved himself. For Pittman, that’s the perfect Florida allegory: “surrounded by dangerous beauty, in way over our heads, pulled along by powerful forces, desperately grabbing for any life line.”

Denying that his book is history, Pittman also disclaims it as a memoir. That leaves the possibility that a librarian or bookseller could put Oh, Florida in the true crime section, because it’s hard to separate Florida and crime. Florida is, after all, the state that finally executed the infamous serial killer Ted Bundy.

As Pittman observes, geographically, Florida is a rumrunner’s dream—and a pot smuggler’s dream, and a cocaine runners’ dream. A writer for Forbes quoted in the book once said that there is “something in Florida’s humid, languorous air” that attracts “pirates, derelicts, remittance men, thieves, madams, gamblers, blue-sky promoters, moneybags, exhausted noblemen, black-market operators, profiteers [and] all the infections of Western life.” Pittman weaves quite a few stories about some of Florida’s famous and not-so-famous criminals and con artists, and expands the Forbes list considerably.

So, besides being creatively written, immaculately researched, and fascinating, what type of book is Oh. Florida? On what shelf should the librarians and booksellers place it?  There’s no quick answer to that question, but one possibility is suggested by Carl Hiaasen’s observation that Oh, Florida is “hilarious, creepy, and sobering.”

Oh, Florida is travel, history, memoir, true crime—and more. It’s a love story between Pittman and his native state. Pittman writes:

This is not a history of Florida, although I’ll be recounting some of our twisted backstory. This is not a memoir, although I’ll sprinkle in a few personal anecdotes to make a point. This is not one of those books that consists entirely of a bunch of wacky stories, although I’ll spin some of those yarns as well. My goal is to make you see Florida the way I see it, to appreciate Florida the way we natives do, to relish its fantastic flavors and wild variety. Think of me as your tour guide on a journey of exploration, a cross between squint-eyed Rod Serling and one of those patter-drunk boat captains on Disney’s Jungle Cruise.

Pittman is a Tampa Bay Times reporter and graduate of the journalism program at Troy University in Alabama, where he demonstrated his muckraking talents to the dismay of the dean. Though he has covered a diverse range of newspaper beats, he is currently the environmental reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. He is also the four-time winner of the Waldo Proffitt Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism in Florida, as well as a two-time recipient of the top investigative reporting award of the Society of Environmental Journalists. His previous books include The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World’s Most Beautiful Orchid (2012); Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species, (2010); and, with Matthew Waite, Paving Paradise: Florida’s Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss (2009). He and his wife, also a Florida native, live in Southwest Florida with their two sons. Pittman blogs and tweets about Florida and has a new email newsletter about his beloved state.

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