All About Patrick D. Smith - A Florida Treasure

By WARREN RESEN, Florida Outdoor Writers Association Member
Published in the Farmer & Rancher beginning in May 2005

Tobias MacIvey was thirty years old and had been in the Florida scrub for five years. He had come south out of Georgia in 1858. In his horse-drawn wagon there was a sack of corn and a sack of sweet potatoes, a few packets of seeds, a shotgun and a few shells, a frying pan, several pewter dishes, forks, and a cast-iron pot. There were also the tools he would need to clear the land and build a house: two chopping axes, a broadaxe foot, crosscut saw, auger bit, a fro and drawing knife.

So begins the story of Tobias, his wife Emma and son Zechariah in the Florida wilderness in the mid 19th century. The book is A Land Remembered, the story of three generations of a pioneer family in Florida and a story portraying the tenacity of American pioneers: how they survived and prospered in an often hostile environment. There are those still around today in Florida who sat across the dinner table from grandparents and heard first hand similar stories from those who where there when it happened.

This is the novel for which its author, Patrick Smith, is probably best known. A Land Remembered, vividly demonstrates his keen and penetrating eye as a gifted observer of the human condition. Not a word is wasted in what many believe is the definitive story of Florida’s emergence into modern day history. It is Patrick Smith at his best.

Patrick Smith was voted the most beloved of Florida’s contemporary writers by a major Florida magazine and A Land Remembered has several times been voted the most insightful book ever written about Florida and how it evolved as settlers moved south. But more than that, it is a warm, rich story about people.

Patrick Smith’s first book was published more than fifty years ago. He has nine major novels to his credit, many which tell of the plight of the underdogs in life according to him. His body of work has earned him honors and recognition underrate of by most writers; three nominations for the Pulitzer Prize and multiple nominations for the Nobel Prize for Literature. But in his self effacing, ah shucks manner, Patrick said, “Heck, I didn’t win none of them. I was just nominated.” At last count, Patrick Smith’s novels have been published in 48 languages around the world.

Patrick’s first novel, The River is Home, published in 1953, is a simple but powerful tale about a boy’s coming of age and of the swamp rats living along the Pearl River in south Mississippi at the beginning of the 20th century. Smith’s second novel, The Beginning, highlights the struggles of whites and blacks in the South during the tumultuous 1960’s Civil Rights movement. It was reported to be an accurate reflection of the times.

Patrick’s wife Iris is a native of Deland and they were married there in 1948. After moving to Florida permanently in 1966, Patrick’s focus as a writer shifted to issues facing a state where the dragline and bulldozer seemed to be everywhere. Forever Island, published in 1973, and Allapattah published in 1979, tell of the Seminole Indians and their struggle to cope in the modern world. Angel City, published in 1978, is the story of migrant workers in Florida and of the harsh working conditions and virtual slavery in which they were often held.

In researching material for these novels about the plight of the Seminoles, Patrick Smith lived among them down in Big Cypress and spent so much time there he said that his wife thought I had a girlfriend stashed away down in the swamps. For the story about migrant workers in Florida in the 1960’s. Patrick told me that, “I would go out to the camps disguised as one of the migrant workers to get material for the book. It was hard work and dangerous for me. If they ever found out what I was doing, I would have been in big trouble.”

The honors bestowed upon Patrick Smith have been many. In 1999 he was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in Tallahassee, the highest honor that can be bestowed on any Floridian in the arts. When Patrick was presented with the statuette symbolizing this singular achievement, all this man of letters was able to utter in response was, “Wow.” He is only the second writer ever to receive this award while still living. The other one inducted while still alive was Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, author of the legendary The River of Grass.

At the installation ceremony, one of the speakers related a story told to him by Patrick’s father when he had visited with the elder Smith in Mississippi, Patrick’s home state. Patrick’s father told his visitor that, “He was worried about his son because all Pat wanted to do was read and write and he didn’t know how he would be able to make a living.”

Patrick and his wife Iris live on Merritt Island, Florida, in a house filled with the memorabilia and awards bestowed on him through the years. Smith’s popularity is worldwide so it is not surprising to hear his stories of both the famous and ordinary folks who have knocked on his door; people who have come to personally tell him how his novels have so deeply affected them and, in many instances, changed their lives.

The staying power of A Land Remembered, first published in 1984, is evident by its many reprints. This is possibly the most beloved book ever written about Florida. You would think A Land Remembered has brought Patrick Smith the greatest satisfaction of all his works, but during our interview he spoke most often of his earlier works, Forever Island and Angel City. In addition to the six novels mentioned, Smith is also co-author, with former rodeo champion Pee Wee Mercer, of the non-fiction book The Last Ride published in 2000; the non-fiction book about his trips to Russia, In Search of The Russian Bear published in 2001 and his latest novel published in 2003, and The Seas That Mourn. This novel tells of the hardships and devastation faced by the United States Merchant Marine during World War II.

PATRICK SMITH IN HIS OWN WORDS

“I’ve had nine books published, but the one most everyone wants to talk to me about these days is A Land Remembered. The book was published just before Christmas 1984 and I don’t even know how many printings it has gone through. It has been published in hardcover, mass market paperback, trade paperback, a two volume Student Edition both in hardcover and paperback and now in an 11-cassette recorded book set.

“One thing that has been especially gratifying to me are the hundreds of letters I’ve gotten from young people who have read A Land Remembered since the Student Edition was published and adopted by schools across the state. Many of them say that reading the book changed their lives. They told me that until they had read the book they didn’t know what the term family values really meant. They didn’t know about a time when people lived together, worked together without complaining, laughed together, cried together, loved together and died together, spending their lives together with the family always first. Many also said that A Land Remembered was the first book that they had read all the way through, from cover to cover.

“I’ve received letters from black students telling me how much they loved that character Skillet, the ex-slave; about how he was accepted as a loved member of the MacIvey family not because of his race or color, but because of his character. Skillit was admired and respected by all who came to know him and this seems to have made an impression on these young readers. Character does count in life.

“I spent over two years doing research for A Land Remembered. People I meet, whose families have been in Florida for generations, keep telling me that the story is actually about their family. I’m sure there are many similarities, but the characters in the novel are not based on one family; they are composites of typical Florida pioneers. There are many families in this novel, all blended together to become the MacIvey family.

“An elderly gentleman recently called me from Tampa. He told me had just read A Land Remembered and said how much he loved the story about what happened here in Florida in the 1800s and that it was essentially the story he had heard about his father’s family migration to Florida. Its amazing to me how many native Floridians who have read the book say it’s like a page out of their family history. When I hear these comments, then I know I got the story right.

“Many people ask me if all those things that happened in A Land Remembered are true. Most are. They were told to me by people whose ancestors lived through them: like that one in the book that took place about 1878 on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee. That’s the one about the custard apple forest with the moon vines growing up and over the trees. They told me that the moon vines were so thick, a man could walk right up the vines to the tops of the trees and then over the top of the forest. I got that story from people whose families lived here way back then and they swore it was true.

“One minor story, the tale of the Carolina parakeets, was passed down through my wife’s family who came to Florida in 1830. The story about young Sol MacIvey selling baby buzzards to tourists in Palm Beach for $25 a pop is one I entirely made up. Folks seem to really get a kick out of it. I think that the story of Sol later buying up a big piece of what was to become Miami Beach for the price of a dozen baby buzzards was appropriate in light of what was to happen down there in the 1920s land boom when swamp land was the #1 best seller.

“About sixteen years ago I received a letter from California and the first sentence said, “This is a fan letter.” It was from Buddy Ebsen, the actor, who had just read A Land Remembered and declared it to be his all-time favorite novel. Buddy had a long film career but is probably best remembered for his role as Jed Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies. That letter started a long friendship.

“About a year after I received that letter, Buddy called and asked if it would be okay if he flew to Florida to come to our home for a visit. Of course I said YES! A couple of days later he called from the Orlando airport, said he had rented a car, and would be right over. Iris was the official photographer for the event and took our pictures. She cut off the top of Buddy’s head but you could still tell it was him. We had a wonderful time together.

“Buddy passed away in July of 2003. He was 95. They had “A Life Celebration” for Buddy out in California given by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and I was invited but unfortunately could not attend. Not long ago I got a card from Buddy’s wife that read, “Dear Patrick, Buddy cherished your friendship and great books. You will always be with us. A Peaceful and Happy New Year…Dorothy Ebsen.” The picture on the card is a self-portrait of Buddy. He turned into quite a painter late in life. I will always remember the night he just “popped thorough our door” on Merritt Island to talk about A Land Remembered.

“People are always asking me why A Land Remembered hasn’t been made into a movie. It has been optioned several times for a film and supposedly is under option right now. We just keep hoping. On the other hand, Forever Island has been optioned 17 times. It was under option one time to Disney about the time they were fixing to destroy half of a mountain in Colorado to put in a resort there. The project raised such a ruckus out there that they decided they’d better back off on the movie because Forever Island is about a real estate developer destroying part of the Everglades. One man was ready to go into production with it but he got cancer and just up and died. That man was Richard Boone, the actor. He just loved that novel and we spent a lot of time together discussing the movie.

“One of my books was made into a movie. Angel City was made into a feature length film in 1978 for a CBS movie of the week. It wasn’t but 60 days after it was optioned that it went into production. The filming of Angel City came about this way:

“I had a call from John Newland one day. John was an actor and a partner in the film company for the Loretta Young Show. He used to introduce her in all those Loretta Young programs on television. John told me that he and his associates were going to fly to Miami and they wanted me to meet with them at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. When we met, they wanted to know right off the bat if there was a real camp out there just like the one I described in my book Angel City. I told them it was because I had been there many times while researching the novel. Then they told me that if the camp was there they would make the movie but wouldn’t be interested if the camp wasn’t there; for some reason they didn’t think they could make this movie on a Hollywood set. That night we went to dinner at Joe’s Stone Crabs in Miami Beach.

“Next morning we drove out to find the camp. We went all the way down the road from Florida City to the entrance of Everglades National Park because I knew the camp was along the road leading to the Park. Well, I hadn’t been there in several years and it wasn’t where I thought I remembered it to be and I said to myself, Lordy, there goes my movie out the window. We had just about given up hope of finding it and were starting back when I saw a line of Australian Pines that looked familiar. I told them that I thought the camp was behind that line of trees. We turned off on a little dirt trail and there it was and the movie was made.”

RESPONSES FROM READERS

“Readers responses to my novels keep coming in, even to this day, and some of them go straight to the heart. I received a letter from a man who lives way up on the Bay of Fundy in Canada. He said that no other novel he had ever read had affected him so deeply as did Forever Island, and because of this he named his yacht after the novel and it is now his own personal Forever Island. He sent a photo along with the letter, and it is a beautiful boat. Painted on its sides are the words FOREVER ISLAND, and beside this is a little Florida island with a palm tree.

“One man called and told me that he had fallen in love with A Land Remembered and had read it a dozen times. He invited Iris and me to come have lunch with him and his wife. We finally did go and enjoyed it so much. He was an elderly gentleman, and he told us his family had been in citrus for several generations. Not too long after our visit, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“A few weeks later his daughter wrote to us and said that her father wanted only two things on his hospital table, his family bible and his personal copy of A Land Remembered. She said she would go there at night and read to him. One night he asked her to read him his favorite passage in A Land Remembered. When she started reading he smiled, and while she was reading, he passed away. She said that the last thing on earth her father heard was her reading that passage from the novel. I’ve had other people tell me similar stories about loved ones wanting to hear passages from A Land Remembered just before they passed. But when I read that particular letter, tears formed in my eyes.”

PERSONAL THOUGHTS

“I’ve been afforded so many opportunities because of my writing. A lot of things I’ve been invited to participate in here in Florida and elsewhere would never have happened without A Land Remembered. I’ve made over 2,000 lectures in this state; in cities, in small towns, at crossroad villages, and lots of times out in the middle of cow pastures. I’ve talked to so many different types of organizations I couldn’t begin to recall them all.

“A long time ago in Mississippi, I wrote Sunday features for a big statewide newspaper called the Clarion-Ledger and I hadn’t been back there since they had built all those casinos and hotels. To tell you the truth, I didn’t recognize the Mississippi Gulf Coast last time I was there. When I was there before, it was just a quiet little ole ride across that coast, from Mississippi and Alabama, and Louisiana too. Boy, it’s all changed now. It’s just solid casinos and hotels. Florida’s pretty much the same now. I was up in the Florida Panhandle a couple of years ago. In fact I once spent a whole week up in the Destin and Ft. Walton Beach area giving talks in high schools. Areas that used to have beautiful, beautiful beaches are now nothing but solid condos. You can’t even see the beach.

“Things have changed, and I wanted to show how Florida used to be through my books. In writing Forever Island, I wanted to give people an idea of what it was like in Florida before all the development and also show what happened to the Seminoles and how they were treated.”

RUSSIA

“I am both pleased and humbled that my writing has touched so many people around the world and provided me with some unique experiences that I would not have had otherwise. Forever Island was a “best seller” in Russia in the late 70s and early 80s and because of this I received an invitation from the Writers Union to visit Russia in 1983. Iris went along with me on this trip and we have wonderful memories of it. My first lecture in Moscow was to graduate students at Moscow University. We met with many groups of writers in Moscow and also in St. Petersburg and from there we flew to Uzbekistan in Central Asia. After some intermediary stops we arrived in the ancient city of Samarkand where I was scheduled to give a public lecture.

“The lecture was jointly sponsored by the Samarkand Public Library and Samarkand University; the subject of the lecture was to be the Seminole Indians and the Florida Everglades. I had no idea people in that part of the world would have the slightest interest in this subject or my novel, Forever Island. Was I evermore wrong! Lord, the whole city turned out to hear me; the auditorium was packed and people were standing along the walls.”

“When I finished my talk in the library and went out to the street, there were over 400 people lined up on that sidewalk holding these old battered copies of Forever Island, printed in the Uzbek language, wanting me to sign them. So, I went down the sidewalk and signed my name in all 400 or so copies, in English of course. Each signature brought a deep and sincere smile of appreciation. It was a very emotional experience for me.

“I was invited back to Russia in 1986 to be a speaker at the 8th Congress of Writers. When it came my turn, I stood at the podium facing 2,600 writers representing 56 countries and it “scared the spit” out of me, but somehow made it through my address without a bobble. That same year I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the International Writers meeting held in Sofia, Bulgaria, that drew writers from 57 nations. I was really surprised by the #1 concern of these writers from all over the world; the protection of the environment. After the USSR broke up and the citizens of those countries were free to travel, many of our Russian friends visited us in Florida. The number one thing they all wanted to see was not a theme park or a beach; they wanted to see an alligator.”

AUTHOR’S CONCLUSION

After reading A Land Remembered, you can never again drive through Florida without thinking of its rich history thanks to Patrick Smith’s vivid imagery. If we take the time to listen, we discover our heritage through his stories. Patrick Smith is in the same league as Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and others who have written so insightfully of the human condition.

Palm Beach County Judge Nelson Bailey, also known as the “Florida Cracker Judge Story Teller,” is a long time friend and admirer of Patrick Smith. He is one of the people whose life was changed after reading Patrick’s most famous book. He credits his love of Florida history and story telling to reading A Land Remembered.

Dressed in 1880’s cracker garb and sitting atop his cracker horse with his Florida cow dog and cow whip at his side, Judge Bailey travels the state sharing his love of Florida’s long history with native and newcomer alike. Judge Bailey told Patrick Smith during a recent visit, “Patrick, your writings have been a major influence in my life. They have brought me a sense of wonder of my home state of Florida. A Land Remembered spurred me to put together a storyteller performance about Florida history and its pioneer heritage that I give from horseback all around the state. I do this so that folks realize there is more to Florida than just theme parks. Without you, this would not have happened. As an old cracker pioneer would say, Bless you for all you have done.” Countless people feel the same way.

See the article, plus links to other articles about Patrick Smith here.

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