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A lost world comes alive in 'Through the Groves,' a memoir of pre-Disney Florida


Florida is in the news a lot these days, but the Florida that journalist Anne Hull writes about in Through the Groves is a place accessed only by the compass of memory.

Hull grew up in the rural interior of Central Florida during the 1960s and '70s. Her earliest recollections are pre-Disney, almost prehistoric in atmosphere. Hull's father was a fruit buyer for a juice processing company. Every day, he drove through miles and miles of remote orange and grapefruit groves, armed with a pistol and a rattlesnake bite kit. Think Indiana Jones searching for the perfect citrus, instead of the Lost Ark. Here are some of Hull's descriptions of riding along with her dad when she was 6:

His CB radio antenna whipped in the air like a nine-foot machete. ... Leaves and busted twigs rained down on us inside the car. Pesticide dust exploded off the trees. And oranges — big heavy oranges — dropped through the windows like bombs. ...

Looking out my father's windshield, I was seeing things I would never see again. Places that weren't even on maps, where the sky disappeared and the radio went dead. Whole towns were entombed in Spanish moss . ... Birds spread their skeletal wings but never flew off. When it seemed we may not ever see daylight again, the road deposited us into blinding sunlight.

Hull, a wise child, soon catches on that her father has a drinking problem and that her mother wants her to ride shotgun with him, especially on payday, to keep him from "succumbing to the Friday afternoon fever."

Eventually, her parents divorce, Hull grows up, and she struggles with her queer sexuality in a culture of Strawberry Festival queens and pink-frosted sororities. At the time of that early ride-along with her father, Hull says, Walt Disney had already taken "a plane ride over the vast emptiness [of Central Florida], looked down, and said, 'There.'" Much of that inland ocean of citrus groves and primordial swamplands was already destined to be plowed under to make way for the Kingdom of the Mouse.

With all due respect to Hull's personal story, Through the Groves is an evocative memoir not so much because of the freshness of its plot, but because Hull is such a discerning reporter of her own past. She fills page after page here with the kind of small, charged and often wry details that make a lost world come alive; describing, for instance, a Florida where "Astronauts were constantly flying overhead ... but [where] the citrus men hardly bothered to look up. ... The moon was a fad. Citrus was king and it would last forever."

Of course, other things besides astronauts were in the air, such as everyday racism. Hull observes that when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the newspaper in her hometown of Sebring, Fla., "put the story at the bottom of the front page." The headline that day announced the crowning of: "A NEW MISS SEBRING." And, then, there were literal airborne poisons — the pesticides that fostered the growth of those Garden of Eden citrus groves. Here's Hull's recollection of seeing — without then understanding — the human cost of that harvest:

At each stop, [my father] introduced me to the growers, pesticide men, and fertilizer brokers who populated his territory.

I had never seen such a reptilian assemblage of humanity. The whites of the men's eyes were seared bloody red by the sun. ... Cancer ate away at their noses. They hawked up wet green balls of slime that came from years of breathing in pesticide  as they sprayed the groves with five-gallon containers of malathion strapped on their backs. No one used respirators back then. ... When the chemicals made them nauseous and dizzy, they took a break for a while, then got back to it.

Hull left the world of her childhood to become a journalist, one who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her stories about the mistreatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. Maybe those early trips with her father first awakened her to the horror of how casually expendable some human beings can be.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.