As the twentieth century began, Galveston Island was home to a boomtown with a seemingly unlimited future. For good reason, the city called itself “Wall Street of the Southwest,” a title its citizens felt secure to claim because of Galveston’s number of large banks, cotton merchants and brokers. Most importantly, Galveston Bay formed a natural harbor that allowed Galveston to have become the largest city in the state of Texas, home to some 42,000 citizens.
It is at this point that Michael Kasenow’s debut novel, The Last Paradise, begins. Rather than telling Galveston’s story through the eyes of its wealthiest citizens, however, Kasenow decided to do so from the point-of-view of the racially diverse bunch inhabiting a lively Galveston neighborhood called the Alleys. The Alleys is home to former slaves, prostitutes, gamblers, alcoholics and other down-and-outers of all stripes.
Starting his story at a deceptively slow pace, Kasenow introduces a host of characters that readers will long remember. The character around whom the book is centered is drifter Maxwell Hayes, a man who, despite having experienced the worst that life can throw at a person, still knows right from wrong and is willing to defend those unable to defend themselves. Newt Haskins, Maxwell’s best friend, is a former Yale man and card shark who works on the docks with Maxwell. Maxwell, despite himself, is fond of prostitute Fanny Brown, a woman willing to sell herself if it means that her son Cody will be able to afford college one day.
Despite what the rest of the city is like, in the Alleys blacks and whites mingle freely and skin color is not a big issue. Jake Bishop, a black man who works with Maxwell and Newt, wants nothing more than to see his son and two daughters make more of themselves than he was allowed to make of himself. As the book opens, young Jake is preparing to leave Galveston for his first year’s schooling, still trying to choose between becoming a doctor or a schoolteacher.
These are just some of the characters that readers will come to know. There are numerous others, including the delightful Catholic nuns who run the orphanage, a happily in love, but mentally handicapped couple, corrupt businessmen, deadly policemen who double as Klan members, and other colorful hangers-on who frequent Maxwell’s favorite saloon.
The Last Paradise is a frank look at how those at the bottom of the economic ladder were exploited by those at the top in turn-of-the-century America. Life is not easy in Maxwell’s world but those who inhabit it along side him are surprisingly happy with their day-to-day existence right up to the point that others decide to remind them of how powerless they really are. Just when their little community suffers a mortal blow, and it seems that things cannot possibly get any worse, the famous Galveston hurricane of September 8, 1900 strikes the island.
Michael Kasenow’s description of the storm and its aftermath is haunting, especially knowing that Galveston was almost destroyed again in 2008, this time by Hurricane Ike. What Kasenow describes is so gut wrenching and horrible that the reader begins to feel like a storm survivor in search of loved ones. It is only when all the book’s characters are finally accounted for, in fact, that readers will feel ready to learn what life has in store for the survivors.
The Last Paradise, filled with humor, drama, tragedy and colorful characters, is a worthy piece of historical fiction. Michael Kasenow tells the story of a city that would likely be much different today if not for the storm that almost destroyed it 108 years ago.
Rated at: 4.5