The Books Briefing: How to Tell a Story About Florida

Examining some of Florida’s many narratives more carefully can lead to a richer understanding of the state, the country, and the nature of storytelling itself.

Photograph of an alligator skull
Constantine Manos / Magnum

“Seek to encapsulate Florida in a single narrative, and you’ll find yourself thwarted,” Lauren Groff writes in a review of Kent Russell’s In the Land of Good Living. In the book, Russell and his friends walk from the northwest corner of Florida’s panhandle south to Miami’s Coconut Grove, learning the state’s lore and teasing apart “the accepted story of Florida” from “the actual—far darker—story.”

Take Walt Disney, for example. Economic stress after the Second World War degraded his work into bland, mindless comforts and theme parks, Neal Gabler argues in Walt Disney. Racism pervades many Disney films. And the amusement parks have again veered into financial precarity during the pandemic, leading the franchise to furlough 43,000 Disney World workers. Hiding under the facade of a glorious natural landscape, climate change poses an even more existential threat to the state. As Environmental Disaster in the Gulf South demonstrates, racial injustice and economic inequality fuel environmental disasters that endanger Gulf Coast residents and their homes.

Uncovering such dark truths is not easy. As the characters in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing grapple with history, the novel exposes both the pain and relief of unearthing the past. Joan Didion’s South and West, “a story that is self-consciously not a story,” raises the even more fundamental question of who has the power to tell these stories. Considered in concert, these books examine some of Florida’s stories more carefully and lead to a richer understanding of the state, the country, and the nature of storytelling itself.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading


The dark soul of the Sunshine State

“To try to understand this most incomprehensible state, we need varied and probing narratives, ones that change as Florida changes and are told by people who love the state too deeply to refrain from blistering criticism.”

📚 In the Land of Good Living: A Journey to the Heart of Florida, by Kent Russell


Walt’s world

“The end of the golden age of Disney animation marked the start of both the studio’s precipitous artistic decline and its astonishing economic success.”

📚 Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, by Neal Gabler
📚 The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney, by Richard Schickel
📚 The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life, by Steven Watts

house on stilts over the water

Why the Gulf Coast is uniquely vulnerable to disasters

“People don’t just find themselves in places vulnerable to flooding. They are pushed there by racial injustice, economic inequality, and short-term, profit-driven development practices.”

📚 Environmental Disaster in the Gulf South: Two Centuries of Catastrophe, Risk, and Resilience, edited by Cindy Ermus

photograph of a path in the woods

Jesmyn Ward’s eerie, powerful unearthing of history

Sing, Unburied, Sing is Ward’s third novel and her most ambitious yet. Her lyrical prose takes on, alternately, the tones of a road novel and a ghost story … The novel explores both the deep effects of racism and injustice on [a] fractured family, and the ways its members punish themselves for how they’ve chosen to cope.”

📚 Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

illustration of Joan Didion

We sell ourselves stories in order to live

South and West, as it happens, arrives on the scene during a moment of deep anxiety, in American culture, about stories … Who has the power to tell ‘our’ stories? Who should have it? When telling the story of another, where is the line between appreciation and appropriation? Where does my story end, and yours begin?”

📚 South and West: From a Notebook, by Joan Didion
📚 The White Album, by Joan Didion
📚 Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading right now is Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi.

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