July 2023

Through the Groves

By Anne Hull
Anne Hull’s exquisite memoir carries readers back to a time when citrus was king in central Florida, even as she reveals the fissures in her life beneath the fragrant orange blossoms.
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Before Walt Disney World paved Orlando with parking lots and erected glittering idols to commercialism, lush orange groves carpeted central Florida. Children were entertained not by a grinning rodent wearing a bow tie and white gloves but by playing among the glossy green leaves and sweet-smelling blossoms, or by chasing after the mosquito fogging trucks that arrived every evening in the summer. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anne Hull’s exquisite memoir, Through the Groves, carries readers back to a time when citrus, not Disney, was king in Florida, even as she reveals the fissures in her life beneath those fragrant orange blossoms.

As a young child, Hull spent her summers riding shotgun with her father, who was an inspector for a citrus grower. They bounced through the rutted aisles of the orange groves, car antenna whipping through the leaves and knocking fruit into the car. She met the growers and those who worked for them, whose bodies had been ravaged by years of close contact with pesticides. “I had never seen such a reptilian assemblage of humanity,” she writes. “Their faces cracked when they smiled. Cancer ate away at their noses.” During one of those rides, when she noticed her father screwing the cap back onto a bottle that was different from the Pepto-Bismol bottle he often drank from, Hull realized that her father was abusing alcohol.

Hull’s mother, who looked like “Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” had dreams of being a journalist. But when the family moved to Sebring, Florida, her mother instead started teaching elementary school. Hull’s father’s drinking eventually drove a wedge between him and his wife, and Hull and her mother moved in with family in St. Petersburg. She recalls the opening of Disney World around this time and its effects on the region, writing, “I hated it before it ever opened. . . . It was front-page news; it was practically a religious holiday in Florida.” As she grew up, Hull learned to navigate the streets of St. Pete and to live life on her own terms. During her first year at Florida State University, she awoke to her attraction to women, and her mother accepted and embraced her. Hull left college to become a rep for Revlon, and instead of oranges, the back seat of her car was crowded with “six-foot-tall beautiful women made of cardboard.”

As Hull walks out of the Florida groves and into her adult life, she can clearly see the shadows they cast on her world. In her closing chapter, she shares a valuable gem of wisdom that reveals her vulnerability and ours: “Almost nothing in Florida stays the way it was. It’s bought, sold, paved over, and reimagined in a cycle that never quits. The landscape I saw through my father’s windshield as a child has been so thoroughly erased I sometimes wonder if I made it up.” Through the Groves captures the ugliness and the beauty of growing up in a Florida now long gone.

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