||April 17, 2006
"The bomb sat in a bag on Kelly Sands' desk for an hour before she noticed it."
Barnes & Noble.com
And so begins a tale of developers and politicians so intent upon their plans to destroy some of the last rural lands in north Florida, they will go to any means.
Through it all, reporter Kelly Sands remains dedicated to uncovering their underhanded methods.
From a bomb to dead gopher tortoises to a dead commissioner, Tortoise Stew takes the reader on a mysterious and murky ride through politics — north Florida style.
"Kelly had heard developers hoped to turn the 2,000 rolling acres into a movie studio with a landing strip. She had asked around the county and most of the planners she consulted agreed that 2,000 acres was much larger than either of these entities would require. And Industrial Pines’ name kept popping up as that potential developer and that is why Kelly most especially wanted to speak to B.J. Winters, the man behind it all as president of I.P. In a situation typical of the Good Old Boy system, Winters’ daughter, Betty Duncan, served as the city manager for Calloway.
Members of a newly formed activist group, Smart Growth for Calloway, sat in the audience. They took notes as the presentations and discussions continued. One SGC member, Karen Thorne, spoke, but the Mayor pointedly asked her if she was a resident of Calloway.
“I do not live in the city limits of Calloway, but my property is next to what is being annexed tonight,” Karen replied. “I have a right to voice my opinion.”
The Mayor smiled. “I know you have the right to speak, Miss Thorne, but I want the citizens to know that you don’t pay taxes in the city of Calloway.”
“I just want to ask one question of the Commission,” Karen continued. “Do you really want an airport within the city limits of Calloway? What about the residents who bought their homes here expecting a nice quiet town? Now they’ll have piper cubs and John Travolta jets bombarding the quiet. And even though I don’t live in the city limits, I live closer than you, and you cannot tell me I won’t also be bothered by the noise of planes landing and taking off.”
“Miss Thorne, I have to ask you to sit down and allow others to address the issue regarding annexation,” the Mayor said.
The president of SGC then rose to speak. He was not popular with the Mayor or with Commissioner Jackson Stewart. But his presence at the podium could always assure the audience of an excellent show.
“Cowan Garcia, citizen of Calloway. Mr. Mayor, you can stop this nonsense now or expect a lawsuit in the future for violating county noise ordinances.”
“I’m warning you, Garcia, you are to speak to the annexation, not what might happen on this annexed land,” the Mayor said. “We do not know what is planned for that property. That will come back to us, and we’ll have to approve or disapprove whatever is requested as far as land usage goes. Besides I do believe there is a difference between a landing strip for jets and one for the smaller planes, but that’s not what we’re discussing here tonight.”
“What’s wrong with putting a landing strip on the outskirts of town?” asked Jackson Stewart, a 30-year veteran of the Commission. “You’d think no one wanted to see our town develop. Millstone got that cement plant just down the road, and an asphalt plant even closer, instead of us, all because we have commissioners here who refuse to let Calloway grow. And now we’ve got a way to bring in the businessmen to make our town even better. I’d be mighty proud to have John Travolta walking the streets of Calloway, eating in our fine restaurants, spending his money here. I don’t understand why anyone would doubt the good business sense in that.”
Commissioner Stewart’s comments brought silence from the crowd. Kelly turned around from her seat at the press table and saw heads bent together possibly concocting a response to Stewart’s view of smart growth.
“I am here representing those who voted me into office, not the developer,” said Commissioner Chelsea Godfrey. “And there is plenty wrong with having a landing strip in our town, even though John Travolta would always be welcome to come and live here and spend his money. Obviously Commissioner Stewart has been meeting with the developers because we as a Commission haven’t been told anything about this development.”
A Lesson for America
Pat Behnke's Hiassen like story of corruption and intrigue in North Florida politics is a must read. Certainly if you are a resident of North Florida this is essential reading - as the characters and events, although fictional, are actually based on a real town, with real characters like these, in Alachua County.
While Carl Hiassen got his literary start just a few miles down the road (in what is fictionally portrayed as the college town down the road in the book) - his focus has turned southward. Behnke provides a glimpse into what was once the territory of the notorious Pork Chop Gang of machine politics and how little has actually changed as we have entered the new millenium.
This is a town, fictional as well as real, that time has forgotten - or at least one that has forgotten that the Civil Rights movement ever occurred.
To get a glimpse of the realities upon which this story is based visit [...] and see how truth is often far stranger than fiction.
Behnke's portrayal, however, has significance for all in America. Small town politics is the foundation upon which our nation - and our national politics - rests. If you are concerned with corruption in politics, ineptness in government, or the mean-spirited and self-interested actions of the "power elite" you should train your eyes to local politics. And this is what Behnke has marvelously done in telling this story.
There is a lesson in here for all Americans.
Tortoise Stew a Feast inside a Whirlwind
Publication Date: 07/07/06
An old reporter once said, "The smaller the town, the more vicious its politics."
Patricia Camburn Behnke's novel, "Tortoise Stew," released in March, illustrates that point perfectly, even though it is set in the fictional town of Calloway in North Florida.
"Tortoise Stew" tells the story of Kelly Sands, a reporter working for a weekly newspaper in Zion County (also fictional). Sands had thoroughly irritated a powerful cabal of local public officials, outside developers, corrupt real estate agents -- and their muscle-bound stooges -- with her probing questions and news stories about land usage.
The group thinks she's far, far too aggressive in telling the public about their plans to build an airstrip and movie studio. They are acquiring property in secret, using false names and coercing public officials, she learns. But how to prove it?
They're not above bribery or threats when need be, such as leaving a bomb on her desk one day or breaking into her computer.
But, incredibly, that's just one thread in the book's plot tapestry, which spirals into murder, incest, rape, armadillos, death by tractor trailer and mayhem -- all the things that make a small town interesting.
A reader will recognize right away the Big Gulp that has been Florida's land grab.
Tortoises, too, are part of the story. There are also emotional peaks and valleys, rabid environmentalists, an up-close look at how newspapers work and how relationships don't, though it's a love story too. This isn't a chick book. It's a page-turning thriller set in a condensed place, which just makes the pot boil quicker.
Behnke is a St. Augustine resident and an experienced and award-winning journalist who worked for the High Springs Herald in 2002. The following year, she and her husband started and published a 5,000-circulation newspaper in another small town.
She served as its editor and chief writer, covering politics and writing columns, editorials and news articles. Her husband was art director. They sold the paper in 2005.
So Behnke knows the biz.
Now she is editor-in-chief for Tower Publications in Gainesville and is working on a non-fiction book, "Two Moons In Africa," about a Florida man taken hostage in Angola in 1990.
Behnke is an active public speaker and recently spoke to St. Augustine's chapter of the Florida Writers Association. (The FWA meets 10 a.m. to noon at the main library on July 15.)
I suspect Kelly Sands is Behnke's alter-ego. Sands is a thorough reporter who learns to be feisty. At one point, after a triumph over the forces of darkness, she says, "That'll teach them to leave a bomb on my desk!"
"Tortoise Stew" can be shelved with your Carl Hiassen's books, because both authors hate the development and corruption that is making all of Florida look like Miami, and because both are great reads.
© The St. Augustine Record
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Reader Reviews for "Tortoise Stew"
|Reviewed by M Wallace
|I think we ought to sign Patricia Behnke to speak at our next League of Idaho Writers workshop. Funny Lady!|
|Reviewed by Janet Bellinger
|Makes me want to find out whether the town ended up with a landing strip, or not.|