Man of Letters

Don't take the term "historical novel" at face value as it refers to The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman, warns the book's author John Henry Fleming.

"I call the book a historical novel only in that it tries to re-create the character and the themes of those times [1880s], rather than specific historical figures," the writer explains by phone from his home in Benicia, California, near San Francisco.

Although Fleming is now a confirmed Left Coaster, the former Lake Worth resident chose a distinctly South Florida phenomenon as the subject for The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman, his first book, published last year by Faber and Faber.

Prior to the turn of the century, mail from the north bound for what are now Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties came by steamer ship to Key West. From there it moved by skiff to the Miami area, where letters to all points north were shouldered by a lone carrier who would trod the beach for three days making deliveries on the way to West Palm Beach.

Fleming, who will talk about his book in West Palm Beach this Sunday, learned his coastal postal history at Boynton Beach Elementary School."The basic idea just comes from the real barefoot mailman," admits the novelist, also a creative writing professor at St. Mary's College of California.

The beach mail service is real history and has been written about as such. In Fleming's fun-filled fiction, however, various characters bloat fact into sensationalism for their own gain. "The book is more of an explanation -- sometimes satirical -- about how myths and legends like that come about," Fleming maintains. "And the fact that because it [Florida] was a frontier area, people still thought that they could shape the land the way they wanted to. A lot of the history of Florida is the search for paradise."

Different ideas of paradise are presented through various characters: a no-work, easy-money slacker haven for con men and carpetbaggers; an agricultural utopia for farmers and homesteaders; and, finally, the tourist paradise, as envisioned by land developers and anyone trying to part Sunshine State visitors from their dollars.

Along his route protagonist Josef Steinmetz -- a would-be citrus farmer who ends up toting mail -- meets the rest of the novel's zany cast, which includes beach-combing pirates, Seminole Indians, a millionaire searching for mermaids, and a New York Times reporter trying to make a name for himself by embellishing the mailman myth.

"Whatever interesting themes are below the surface, I hope people read it for enjoyment," notes Fleming. "It's a funny book. But by the end they will get the idea that this is the first step of the big, snowballing tourist industry in Florida."

-- John Ferri

John Henry Fleming discusses and signs copies of The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday at Clematis Street Books, 206 Clematis St., West Palm Beach, 561-832-2302. Admission is free.

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