Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans and Other Florida Wildlife

By Diane Roberts

Free Press. 355 pp. $25

"Old Florida" may strike you as oxymoronic, if not downright moronic, but it's true: There are people in Florida whose roots trace further back than Disney World, Elian Gonzalez or even South Beach Art Deco. There are Floridians whose ancestors -- not just retired parents, but ancestors! -- actually lived there, whose familial memories trace back to before1845, when Florida achieved statehood, who can tell family stories about Florida during the Civil War, to whom forgotten names (Henry Flagler, Ed Ball, LeRoy Collins) are more than just names.

Diane Roberts is one of these people, an eighth-generation Floridian whose family has been there for more than two centuries. Among her ancestors are people named Brouard who changed it to Broward, got one (Napoleon Bonaparte Broward) elected governor in 1905 and now have a huge county, wherein you will find Fort Lauderdale and other garden spots, named in their honor. As it happens, Broward County is in South Florida, and Roberts's family mostly has lived in North Florida, but that merely underscores the point:

"The story of my family is the story of Florida. Not the only story, of course: the descendants of Spanish land-grant families, the descendants of slaves brought from Africa, and now the Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, Puerto Ricans, Canadians, Midwesterners, New Yorkers -- they all have their own stories and their own experiences of Florida. What's different about my kin is that we are so dug in, so long-rooted. Over the past hundred years, we have been involved, for good or ill, in the shaping of this strangest of American states. We're . . . holders of the deep memory of Florida."

Strange state, strange book. "Dream State" does have its attractions, most notably a keen understanding of Florida's powerful if peculiar appeal, but it's sloppy, disorganized and self-indulgent. Roberts, who professes English at the University of Alabama and writes for the St. Petersburg Times, is a clever writer who often gets too clever by half, who resorts over and over again to ham-handed sarcasm, who repeatedly and flagrantly misuses "like" (at one point, three times in a single sentence), who just can't get enough of herself and as a consequence imposes far too much about herself on the reader. Her viewpoint on Florida is fresh and interesting, so more's the pity that "Dream State" is such a smarty-pants book.

Hers, Roberts writes, is a family "so absorbed into the groundwater of Florida that they barely notice their names on the maps and the buildings any more . . . plantation owners, poor white trash, governors, lawyers, loggers, doyennes of the Daughters of the Confederacy, soldiers who fought everybody from the Seminoles to the Viet Cong, engineers who drained the marshes and built the roads that let the rest of the world into Florida, and politicians -- lots of politicians." Mainly they've lived in and around Tallahassee, the state capital somewhat incongruously located away from the action in the panhandle of West Florida -- though when it was established that's where the action was, South Florida being pretty much terra incognita for most of the 19th century.

Tallahassee isn't Florida, at least not the Florida that most of us know. Back in the mid-1970s, when I lived in Miami for five years, Tallahassee seemed about as far away as the moon and about as relevant. Because I edited a Sunday opinion section of the Miami Herald that ran a regular political column from Tallahassee, I was aware that the capital of this ostensibly "northern" southern state was about as southern as a place could get, but it seemed at most a footnote to Florida's real business, which was, and still is, using the state "for whatever profit you could fresh-squeeze out of her," as Roberts puts it. But the truth is that almost all of Florida's pre-20th-century history is to be found in the north, and that people with conventional views of Florida will be surprised by it.

Tallahassee and environs are Ol' Dixie, and the Ol' Dixie mind-set persists there to this day. In a passage that illustrates both Roberts's cutesy prose style and her perceptive view of her subject, she describes "Tallahassee's version of Florida history" as follows:

"In the sixteenth century, Spaniards in puffy britches and pointy helmets, along with their mantilla-draped girlfriends, discovered Florida and brought Jesus. Time passed, then Andrew Jackson blew in and did things we'd rather not discuss (but our destiny was manifest, obviously). In 1821 he made us an American territory. This cleared the way for top-hatted gents and belles in ruffled crinolines, who got rich and built houses grand as Greek temples, apparently without breaking a sweat. In the 1860s brother fought brother over slavery (which, no matter what some people say, Wasn't That Bad). The Civil War was romantic and tragic, but it was a Good Thing in the end because it resulted in integration, which resulted in FSU winning national championships in football. After the Civil War the 1920s happened and flappers twirled long beads while riding in Model Ts. Jazz was played. Then NASA put a man on the moon and Disney put a mouse in Orlando. Now the gents drive Chris-Craft speedboats, the belles wear bikinis, and every day is just another day in paradise."

As that passage makes plain, Roberts is working overtime at being Florida's answer to Molly Ivins: a just-folks humorist and commentator to whom nothing is sacred, especially nothing that falls on the right (i.e., wrong) side of the liberal/conservative divide. Ivins makes mincemeat out of George W. Bush, and Roberts does the same number on Jeb. She's a card-carrying liberal in a state that's swung so far to the right (at least according to the way it counts the votes) it's barely visible without a telescope. Yet she's also a sentimentalist when it comes to the Florida she knows best, that moonbeams-and-magnolia place where her forebears lived, worked and procreated. The result is a book with a split personality, not at all a bad metaphor for Florida itself.

There have, as she says, "always been two Floridas, silk hat and wool hat, white shoe and no shoes." The plantation masters and slaveholders of antebellum Florida gave way to the developers who run the place now, but the more things change, the more they remain the same: "The New South's New Florida just found a new way to exploit the land. And a new set of masters. After the social, economic, and psychic wreckage of the Civil War, Florida was about broke. So Florida sold itself. Buy enough land, buy enough legislators, and they'd name a town, or even a county, after you."

Better than most, Roberts understands that although Florida pretends "that it's not part of the South, that it belongs to, say, some mythic golf course nation stretching from Fort Lauderdale to San Diego," in fact it "behaves more like Mississippi than Santa Monica or Minnesota." Its education budget is parsimonious, its taxes are "structured to protect Big Sugar, Big Citrus, Big Phosphate, Big Tomatoes, and, of course, Big Condos," and its legislature makes Alabama's look like the Roman Senate. Yet for all that, it exercises a powerful appeal on the American psyche. It's "a place for people who needed a new start," a place that somehow brings out the dreamer in us.

Roberts grasps all of this and writes perceptively about it. She shows important aspects of Florida about which most Americans are happily ignorant. Unfortunately, you have to struggle through all that self-regarding prose to get to the good stuff.