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I Take This Land: Florida, 1895-1946    by Richard Powell order for
I Take This Land
by Richard Powell
Order:  USA  Can
R Bemis, 1985 (1962)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In I Take This Land, Richard Powell - author of The Philadelphian and The Soldier - brings us an epic account of the larger than life pioneers who brought the railroad to southern Florida and developed the land, often to the detriment of the environment and to the dismay of those who were there first. That theme, of environmental concern, remains a timely one to this day.

Like many of Powell's mainstream characters, the protagonist of I Take This Land is driven. In 1895, Ward Campion is a wild young man from Philadelphia, who's been learning railroading - and studying how empires are built - under Henry B. Plant. After a reckless act gains him an introduction to a bunch of high rollers, a risky gamble in a poker game wins him the 'worthless hunk of paper' - or possibly 'a key that could unlock the last real frontier in the United States' - that gives rights to the Fort Taylor and Southern Railroad. He wins the paper and then faces the deadline that goes with it. Campion heads south to find out what he's up against.

At the same time, the Big Freeze has devastated orange groves further north in Florida, and many farmers have lost everything. Joel Emmett heads south with his young brother Tim, hoping to start again. His compassion causes him to go out of his way to help an ornery old man, from whom Joel eventually inherits a new grove. Anne Bevier is a teacher from Key West, who has a passion for her new surroundings and its people. Her letter to Plant is the catalyst for all the events that follow. Rush Lightburn, who grew up in the Big Cypress swamps and loves them just as they are, is obsessed with the new teacher, arousing the jealousy of his wild younger sister Julie.

Richard Powell mixes all these folk together, with lashings of love, ambition, violence, greed, mistakes and regrets. He shows us over fifty years, what happens to them, their children, and the land that they all love, each in their own way. I especially enjoy the way he conveys his characterizations, as when he describes Rush's wooing of Anne. Rush compares their communication to fishing - 'Trouble was, there were more thoughts than there were kinds of fish, and a powerful lot of words to use as bait, and it was hard work and he didn't like it.' Several men want Miss Anne, but she makes a wise, and surprising choice in the one she weds.

Though written in 1962, I Take This Land is still a wonderful, and relevant, read - an epic novel that resonates with the lush, exotic charms of its southern Florida setting and ends on a note of hope for the preservation of its natural beauty, speaking of the return of egrets to lovely Lost Girl Swamp: 'Here and there, among the branches, white birds sailed, proud as the figureheads on old clipper ships. One of them alighted on a twig and wove it into a nest and spread its lacy plumes. Yes, the egrets had come back.'

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