21 March, 2013

Review: Finding Florida by T.D. Allman

Spoiler Alert: I'm a Floridian.

I picked up an advance copy of Finding Florida planning to hate read it. Instead I fell completely in love. I fell so in love that I've been struggling with how to properly convey that love to you without imitating Gollum and the Ring. If I ruled the world, people would be unable to have an opinion on Florida without having read Finding Florida. We'd pass it out with our free samples of orange juice, take copies door to door with the Yellow Pages. Pundits speaking in election years would have to first read a sample passage from the book before continuing to weigh in on whatever issue of the day Florida was allegedly causing. And then, as a nation, we'd take a good long look at what we've done.

 Here's the thing. Everyone writes about Florida. Everyone knows what Florida is, be it a punchline or a destination. If you have enough cash, Florida is Mar-a-Lago. If you don't, Florida is Trayvon Martin. If you want to prove a point (any point, really) you can use Florida as the example and people will assume you're right. No one ever tells the truth in or about Florida. This is a place where reality twists to the will of the speaker and that frustrates the hell out of the natives. Especially if the speaker is from the New York corridor. T.D. Allman tells the truth. He actually found Florida and wrapped it in a book for you. This is a clear eyed, race neutral history of the Sunshine State. Therefore, Finding Florida may strike some as an incendiary book with an agenda. I would argue that it is impossible to really understand Florida and not be angry. Take our snakes. The milk snake is harmless. It's identical cousin the coral snake will kill you. Schoolchildren are taught rhymes to tell the difference. (My school used "Red on black, friend of Jack. Red on yellow kills a fellow." They also dumped a bag of snakes on the table to make sure we remembered it.)  Florida is a coral snake repeatedly packaged as a milk snake. Don't blame T.D. Allman for getting the facts in proper order.

Florida was never purchased. It was not ceded by Spain. Florida was conquered by repeat covert military actions on tenuous premises. Florida was home to interracial towns which were repeatedly cleared for white settlement. Massacres were common and frequent. Free blacks were enslaved on the pretext that their ancestors had been slaves. Florida is America's spoil of a long and bloody war based on race and profit. The fight for Florida was a fight to expand slavery. A mixed community could not be tolerated as a border to the slaveholding south.

"Starting when he was still Billy Powell, Osceola drew his wives and friends from all racial groups. People of Indian, black—and white—descent fought under his command in every battle. They kept fighting even when betraying the blacks among them would have saved them much suffering and, in many cases, saved their lives. Osceola’s brutal mistreatment, as Congressman Giddings put it, demonstrated “the intimate relation which this war bore to slavery.” General Jesup was even more blunt about it. It was, he pointed out, a war to protect and expand slavery, “a Negro and not an Indian war.” Finding Florida, Page 186

T.D. Allman captures the essential problem of Florida. Billy Powell becomes Osceola. Our history, as it actually happens, is continually rewritten into a narrative that serves forces outside our borders. Without knowing who we really were we cannot understand who we are. Finding Florida is about the framework of political corruption that began our state and still rules it today. It is about the unending ability of people who have failed elsewhere to reinvent themselves, rise to the highest levels, and fail again. 

"When people are unwilling or unable to come to terms with reality, a politics based on unreality becomes necessary to sustain what the Florida scholar Eugene Lyon describes as the “utopia of
mutual hopes.” - Finding Florida, Page 454

"Only in Flori-duh!" is something a Floridian hears often. Failed by our schools, failed by our government, we are a people with a mutual hope that consistently eludes us. We want to be the state we know in our bones we can be. The problem is that too many of us want too many versions of that state. A thousand versions imagined in our own image consistently at war with each other, consistently in denial of our shared history. To the other 49 states we are inexplicable, bewildering and backwards. To ourselves, we are a scapegoat for national failures. Finding Florida proves we're both right.


  1. Wonderful review/commentary. Interesting how it's become a microcosm of national politics: greed and mendacity, what a winning combination.

  2. That sounds fascinating. Adding it to my TBR list.

  3. Thanks so much for your deep understanding of my book.

    How can I contact you directly?

    My email address is


    Thanks again for your perceptive appreciation of what I do (or try to do) in my book, Finding Florida.


    TD Allman