Island Life Sentence: Carrie Jo Howe’s Florida in 10 Never-Seen-Before Photos

“A prosthetic leg with a Willie Nelson bumper sticker washed ashore on the beach, which meant it was Florida.” – Tim Dorsey, Pineapple Grenade.

“The Key West airport greeting from the tarmac. They look like mannequins, but are actually overcooked humans who have crisped into a permanent display.”

Never been to Florida? There are some eye-opening and thirst-quenching treats for you in our special photo journey today. I have been to Florida in the days BC (before children). We travelled down from Miami to Key West and Key Largo. I remember having make a few stops during the car journey. One of them was a shop (sorry, store) we found that was also a cafe and all-round convenience store. It was so convenient that it sold both tampons and guns. There were also souvenir key chains made from chopped off baby alligator paws and some incredibly cute ceramic critters of Florida wild animals, no bigger than your thumb, which I still have and admire in my bathroom to remind me nothing is what it seems.  

Ready for your dose of Floridian sun? She’s tall, blonde and blue-eyed and she epitomises the all-American girl. Meet Carrie Jo Howe, an American author based in Key West, Florida. Her new book, Island Life Sentence is a fictional account of an American Mid-western woman who feels like an alien in the “one human family” of Key West. Carrie Jo’s first book,Motherhood is NOT for Babies, published in Chicago by Windy City, works wonderfully as a form of contraception. 

Carrie will show us her Florida in a journey of 10 Never Seen Before photographs.

1. Key West: lots of water with scattered bits of land.

“I’m afraid to drive across bridges – there are 42 of them to get to mainland Florida.” – Carrie Jo Howe, Island Life Sentence

horseriding landlubber, Carrie grew up in New Jersey. Her childhood was ordinary (she says) but her claim to fame was that her Junior Prom date was James Comey (ex director of FBI). She lived in Glen Ellyn, Il (suburb of Chicago) for 20 years. Carrie says they ended up in Key West because her husband Tom works for Google and he got a Florida posting.

2. Watch out for killer wildlife. Also elderly drivers.

Peg is unaccustomed to the sight of wildlife in Key West

“Most of the wildlife can kill you, not to mention the elderly drivers, and the sun–MY GOD it’s HOT.”

In Florida it was actually too hot to go to the beach. I remember now why I had to leave Malaysia. It was not the racist, apartheid policies, corrupt third world government siphoning the people’s money, though that has something to do with it. Every time I go somewhere hot which seemed a good idea at the time, I remember why I had to leave. This included Vegas which involved crossing an 8 lane motorway in a 2 minute cab ride (he basically did a U-turn and required the customary $5 gratuity) in 42 deg C heat because no one, except slaves and donkeys, walked anywhere.

Lying down in the 40 deg C (90 deg F) sun in 99% humidity is out of the question. Forget reading. Forget makeup. Forget nice clothes. For me, there is something oppressive, desperate and torturous, about extreme heat and humidity and insects biting and singing in high pitch voices, that make you unable to think clearly or even function in a civil manner. Most terrible things I did were in extreme heat and humidity with insects biting and singing in high pitch voices. To this day I regret them.

3. On Recent Gun Crime

For Peg, it’s downward dog followed by corpse pose.

Speaking of the madness in the sun, Carrie questions why in the world would semi-automatic weapons be legal? Carrie mentors a high school girl at Key West High School and she’s scared.

“Kids should be able to attend school without being afraid. The teenagers are becoming more proactive by lobbying and protesting. The adults need to do the same.”

4. On Island Life Sentence:

Carrie’s new book is about the adventures and misadventures of main character Peg Savage whose husband Clark has signed a contract to move to Key West. She has to fend for herself and her dog Nipper as Clark has taken up a long term post in Cuba. Island Life Sentence was born out of Carrie’s own culture shock:

I’m afraid to drive across bridges – there are 42 of them to get to mainland Florida. I have rashy, pasty skin and frizzy hair- not the best when combined with tropical sun, 90 degrees and 99% humidity. I miss my friends and family and struggle with feeling isolated. All of Peg’s stories are true – other than the persistent hauntings. Our house “haints” do not visit me as regularly.  On our Irma evacuation experience, I got to see mother nature at her worst. It was terrifying and humbling. We were lucky that Key West was mostly spared. The Keys north of us were not as fortunate.

Peg drinks like a fish out of water. But can she survive Key West on her own?

  5. Surprise! There is very little crime in Key West.

“Fantasy Fest. It’s an entire week every October. My God.”

Unlike the rest of the state of Florida, there is very little crime Because Key West is isolated by the aforementioned 42 bridges,  the crime is related to drinking and general dumbness.

6. On Hemingway

“I want to get to Key West and away from it all.” – Ernest Hemingway

“Hemingway is everywhere in Key West. He’s crabby and bossy and Peg wishes he would leave her alone.”- Island Life Sentence

When I was working in Cuba on resort design, the legendary Papa Hemingway was everywhere too. He is the key tourist attraction for the intellectual, the god of modern American literature. In Havana I managed to frequent his haunts, the El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio and I habló y bebió like a writer with all these other tourist writers who were re-living the romantic past. He symbolises the ultimate vintage fantasy of the writer, a beach shack, a typewriter, two three bottles of whisky, a fishing boat. His house is in the Spanish Colonial style, built in 1851 and is at 907 Whitehead St, Key West. He restored it and moved into the house in 1931 with his wife no. 2. The house is also a location for the James Bond movie License to Kill. Of this property, I would mention an interesting point being that half of the cats here are polydactyl, having 6 toes, and most of the cats are believed to be descended from Hemingway’s six-toed cat Snowball. All cats are given the names of famous people, such as Clark Gable and Martha Gellhorn. It was in this house that Hemingway wrote some of his best work, including the short story classics “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, his novel To Have And Have Not, and the non-fiction work Green Hills of Africa.

7. Ghosts of Key West

“The supernatural protection of the blue porch ceiling has long faded away. The haints have taken over this old conch house.”

Haints are spirits or ghosts dating back to African descendants from the West Indies. The blue paint of porch ceilings are a common sight in Key West.  The shade is called Jack Frost Blue.” It was believed that “haints could no’t cross water and that painting the porches blue acted as a deterrent. Ghost hunting is a popular tourist activity in Key West. Hauntings are rife. Even the Hard Rock Cafe is haunted. The most haunted place seems to be East Martello Fort built in the 1860s to protect Key West against a confederate assault by sea. It is home of Robert the Doll—an eerie handmade doll that many have dubbed “the original chucky”. He was the beloved toy of artist Gene Otto and it is said that whenever Gene, an ill-tempered boy, got into trouble, he would blame Robert the Doll. The Trolley of Doomed will take you round the ghost tours of Key West. Well maybe the blue ceilings kept the haints away but not Hurricane Irma.

8. On Storms

Storm brewing

Shel Silverstein’s house

Most likely more terrifying than Robert the Doll are the storms and hurricanes of Key West. On a worldwide scale, May is the least active month, while September is the most active. Hurricane Irma destroyed Key West in September 2017 including Shel Silverstein’s house and “you know he hain’t happy about that.”

 9. Key West – Where the Weird Go Pro

This strange sticker motto is the equivalent of the British Keep Calm and Carry On. I have my own which is Shut Up and Deal with It, because, well, I’m not British so why Keep Calm?

Anyway, you don’t keep calm when you are in Key West.  The Key West mantra, according to this online tourist boutique which I checked out: is that “Life. Is. Weird.” This is in their own words. Yeah, I know!

This going pro concept comes from none other than the esteemed Dr Hunter S Thompson, whom as we know is the master of weird:

“When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.”

10. OK I’m in Key West. What shall I do, Carrie? I want it all. Weird. The whole thing.

The final photo in our journey with Carrie. If it’s good enough for Papa Hemingway to fall in love with …

Carrie says:

“When you come to Key West, I’ll make you a Key Lime margarita from our backyard Key Lime tree. We can sip our cold beverages in the cocktail pool which was the original cistern of the property. We’ll walk to the restaurant Salute on the Beach and dine on the most delicious yellowtail snapper–caught fresh that day. We can watch the sky turn colors over the Atlantic as the sun sets a mile away over the Gulf.  Book your ticks now!

Have you been to Key West? Have you read any books set in Key West which piqued your interest? If you have enjoyed this blog post, please share, or email me here: ivy_ ngeow at yahoo dot com with your comments and feedback. As usual I would love to hear from you.

2018 All Rights Reserved © Ivy Ngeow

Carrie Jo Howe is the author of Island Life Sentence andMotherhood is NOT for Babies. She lives in Key West with her husband Tom. She has three grown-up sons. Island Life Sentence is published by Unbound and now out on Amazon. To read more about Carrie and life in Key West Florida, check out: Tweet her @carriejohowe #islandlifesentence 

Carrie’s backyard lime tree. It is thriving post Irma. This is where my Key Lime Margarita will come from.

Ivy Ngeow lives in London. Cry of the Flying Rhino is a debut award-winning novel set in Malaysia and Borneo. Her second novel Heart of Glass is published by Unbound in 2018. She is fond of margaritas, seafood tacos, Americana and all things vintage.

#cryoftheflyingrhino #heartofglass Tweet me: @ivyngeow