My wife’s family loves Florida. They have stories about almost losing my brother-in-law at Disney World, favorite beaches and countless memories of their time in the Sunshine State. I visited for the first time a few years into our relationship. We stayed outside of Orlando, went to Busch Gardens and visited beaches on both sides of the state. I made it back again in 2015, married this time. We decided this time to try Miami, a place that my in-laws had never ventured to. We visited the Keys, I was able to see Hemingway’s house and we had a run in with what was undoubtedly a Miami mobster in a sleek white suit. By this time my wife and her family had been to Florida at least five times, surely they had tired of it. I don’t love Florida. It’s humid, hot and full of insane drivers and toll fees. I don’t care about spending time on the beach and at the time of my visits had no reason to visit any theme parks and meet Disney characters. Sarah Gerard, author of indie sensation Binary Star delves into her love for her home state in a brand new collection of essays titled Sunshine State.
In “Mother-Father God” Gerard talks about her upbringing in the Unity-Clearwater Church, which her mother and father jointly joined. “Going Diamond” tells of Gerard’s families experience with buying into the Amway experience. She fantasized as a kid that her family would go diamond, which was a rank in Amway that was exclusive to only the best sellers. Going diamond, she felt, would have opened their lives to so many other opportunities and material things. Instead she gives the reader insight to the shady practices that some know Amway for.
Nearing halfway through the book we find the essay titled “Records”. It’s here that we learn the most about Gerard herself. She tells the reader about her high school career, including experimentation with drugs and the choir career that she at one time worked so fervently for. “The Mayor of Williams Park” tells the story of G.W. Rolle, a minister of a local church called Missio Dei. Serving breakfast every morning to those most in need, G.W. is an aspiring writer that Gerard spends time with over the course of the essay. She also visits a homeless shelter in Tampa and partakes in the yearly PIT count, which is a survey conducted by human services professionals to get a basic number of the homeless population in a given area.
“Sunshine State” is the book’s title essay and perhaps the most polarizing. It tells the story of the rise and downfall of a bird sanctuary in Indian Shores, FL. Founded in the early 1970’s by Ralph Heath, Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary had fallen into disrepair in the time that Gerard was there reporting. Gerard spends time with Heath, current and former Suncoast employees and tells the stunning story about the rise and fall of what was at one point the largest bird sanctuary in North America.
It was apparent once I got through the first (short) essay that Sunshine State had to offer that I was looking at some of the best non-fiction writing of the year. And it as it progressed, it turned out that I was right. Every sentence improved, every essay was better than the last. By the time the title essay was reached, the book itself was at a sort of crescendo; like the best part of an opera. Gerard opens up to the reader, exposing the most vulnerable parts of herself through a variety of gorgeously crafted essays.
Rating: 5 out of 5 – A self proclaimed memoirist, Sarah Gerard has treated us to what could very well be the best non-fiction book of the year. Her words are warm, her sentences clean. Sunshine State is a collection of essays that should absolutely be used to someday teach creative nonfiction. It sure as hell taught me something.