SUNSHINE STATE by Sarah Gerard


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Decidedly odd characters emerge in eight autobiographical essays.

Combining journalism and memoir, Gerard (Binary Star, 2015, etc.), a novelist, essayist, and columnist for the online journal Hazlitt, brings a sharp eye to recollections of growing up on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Notable for sharply drawn portraits, her essays depict a host of unusual, eccentric men and women. In “Mother-Father God,” the author introduces the earnest spiritual leader of the Unity-Clearwater congregation, a New Thought church, where, for more than a decade, her parents were devoted members. Church activities were omnipresent in her life, leading her to wonder, as an adult, why her parents joined, why they left, and how that early connection to the church shaped her. Gerard juxtaposes her parents’ biographies with a history of the New Thought movement, particularly Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science, that arose in late-19th-century America. Like those early followers, the author’s parents found in Unity-Clearwater “positive, reaffirming messages,” especially the message that “people are not punished for their sins but punished by their sins.” Gerard admits that she has been drawn to the church’s teaching that individuals create potential in the world by first believing in it. Maybe this ongoing belief in potential attracted her parents to become distributors for Amway, a sketchy marketing corporation accused of being a pyramid scheme. Their involvement, no less enthusiastic than in the church, is the subject of the partly fictionalized essay “Going Diamond,” featuring a portrait of Amway’s co-founder Richard DeVos, whose son is the husband of the current nominee for Secretary of Education. Another essay details, somewhat repetitively, the author’s high school years, marked by drugs, alcohol, sex, and, surprisingly, classical singing lessons. The title essay, although it also would have benefited from further editing, vividly portrays the bizarre director of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, where Gerard visited as a child and returned as a volunteer to conduct research. “The Mayor of Williams Park” offers an engaging profile of an unlikely activist working to ameliorate homelessness.

An intimate journey reveals a Florida few visitors would ever discover.

Pub Date: April 11th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-06-243487-6
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Perennial/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2017


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