As the twentieth century began, Galveston Island was home to a boomtown with a seemingly unlimited future.
With 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 had allowed Galveston to become the largest city in 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 does so from the point of view of the racially diverse bunch inhabiting a lively Galveston neighborhood called the Alleys, 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 whom readers will long remember. The character around whom the book revolves is drifter Maxwell Hayes, 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. In spite of himself, Maxwell 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.
There are numerous other characters, 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 alongside 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.
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 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 the reader feels 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. Kasenow tells the story of a city that might have been much different today if not for the storm that almost destroyed it a century ago.