Miami Book Fair International

Belle Glade: fertile ground for sugar, football stars


A talk with the author who embedded himself in Belle Glade, fertile ground for football talent.

Sunday at the fair

•  10:30 a.m.: New Poems: Jesse Millner, ‘Dispatches from the Department of Supernatural Explanation,’0 Carol Lynne Knight on ‘Quantum Entanglement,’ Lola Haskins on ‘The Grace to Leave,’ and Tennessee Reed on ‘New and Selected Poems.’

•  10:30 a.m.: Wild Kingdoms: Craig Pittman on the ‘World’s Most Beautiful Orchid,’ Jose Castro on ‘The Sharks of North America,’ Jessica Speart on the ‘World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler’ and Larry Perez on ‘An Everglades Invasion.’

•  10:30 a.m.: Literary Crimes: A Discussion: Lynne Barrett, Joseph Olshan, Joy Castro and Emily St. John Mandel.

•  10:30 a.m.: : Gilbert King on ‘Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.’

•  11 a.m.: Andrew Solomon discussing his new work of nonfiction ‘Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity.’

•  11 a.m.: Molly Ringwald on ‘When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories.’

•  11 a.m.: Andrés Pi Andreu y Orlando Rossardi presentan sus nuevas obras (in Spanish).

•  11 a.m.: New Fiction: Roberto Ampuero on ‘The Neruda Case,’ Hari Kunzru on ‘Gods Without Men’ and Jess Walter on ‘Beautiful Ruins: A Novel.’

•  11 a.m.: ‘Kurt Vonnegut: Life and Letters’ with Mark Vonnegut, Dan Wakefield and Don Farber

•  11 a.m.: New Fiction: A Reading: Ellis Avery on ‘The Last Nude,’ Michael Sledge on ‘The More I Owe You: A Novel’ and Adam Braver on ‘Misfit.’

•  11:30 a.m.: Bernard Diederich on ‘The Seeds of Fiction: Graham Greene’s Adventures in Haiti and Central America 1954-1983.’

•  11:30 a.m.: Crime and Creativity in Jamaica: A Conversation: Kwame Dawes, Orlando Patterson., Deborah Thomas and Colin Channer, moderator.

•  12 p.m.: See, Learn, Eat: Cooking Demonstration: Maricel Presilla on ‘Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America.’

•  12 p.m.: The Chefs | Their Books: Heather McPherson on ‘Recipes Celebrating Florida,’ Liz Gutman and Jen King on ‘The Liddabit Sweets Candy Cookbook’ and Yvan Lemoine on ‘Comidas USA.’

•  12 p.m.: Harry Hole Returns: Jo Nesbo on his latest novel, ‘Phantom.’

•  12 p.m.: On Creativity: Craft Talk for Writers and Artists with Conor McCreery, creator, ‘Kill Shakespeare.’

•  12 p.m.: Chip Cooper on ‘Old Havana/La Habana Vieja: Spirit of the Living City/El espiritu de la ciudad viva’ and Brian Smith on ‘Secrets of Great Portrait Photography.’

•  12 p.m.: James Patterson on Reading: A Whole Family Event.

•  12 p.m.: Homenaje a Lorenzo García Vega con Jorge Luis Arcos, Ignacio Granados y Margarita Pintado (in Spanish).

•  12 p.m.: Lives Lived: Deborah Baker on ‘A Tale of Exile and Extremism, Rich Cohen on America’s Banana.’

•  12 p.m.: Jean Zimmerman on ‘The Orphanmaster,’ Michael Ennis on ‘The Malice of Fortune,’ Debra Dean on ‘The Mirrored World,’ and Da Chen on ‘My Last Empress.’

•  12:15 p.m.: Novedades de ensayo con Pedro Corzo, Armando de Armas y Rafael Rojas (in Spanish)

•  12:30 p.m.: New Novels: M.J. Rose on ‘The Book of Lost Fragrances,’ Jessica Maria Tuccelli, ‘Glow’ and B.A. Shapiro on ‘The Art Forger.’

•  12:30 p.m.: The Wanderers: Doug Mack on ‘Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day: One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide’ and Tom Swick on ‘The Best American Travel Writing.’

•  12:30 p.m.: A Reading: Sandra Marquez Stathis on ‘The Search for a Haitian Boy,’ Reyna Grande on ‘The Distance Between Us: A Memoir’ and Naomi Benaron on ‘Running the Rift.’

•  12:30 p.m.: Florida Book Award Winners 2012:

•  1 p.m.: Anne Lamott on ‘Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.’

•  1 p.m.: Comics and Social Change: with Marjorie Liu, Dan Parent, Ellen Forney, and Stephanie McMillan. Moderated by DC Comics/Vertigo editor Joan Hilty.

•  1 p.m.: The Last Four Years: David Maraniss on ‘Barack Obama,’ Michael Grunwald on ‘The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era’ and Neil Barofsky on How ‘Washington Abandoned Main Street.’

•  1 p.m.: Narrativa joven del nuevo milenio con Andrés Barba y Carlos Yushimito del Valle (in Spanish)

•  1:30 p.m.: On Food: Barry Estabrook on ‘How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit,’ Aaron Bobrow on ‘Strain on White Bread: A Social History’ and Josh Schonwald on the ‘Future of Food,’ with moderator Art Freidrich.

•  1:30 p.m.: Memoirs: Andre Dubus III on ‘Townie,’ Melissa Coleman on ‘This Life Is in Your Hands,’ Marco Roth on ‘The Scientists,’ and Laura Bell on ‘Claiming Ground.’

•  1:30 p.m.: On Immigration Policy and Practice: Jeff Biggers on ‘Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream’ and Christine G.T. Ho on ‘Establishing Legitimacy and Rights For Displaced People.’

•  1:45 p.m.: Mempo Giardinelli y el santo oficio de la memoria (in Spanish).

•  2 p.m.:The Chefs: Their Books: Seamus Mullen on ‘Seamus Mullen’s Hero Food: How Cooking with Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better,’ Hiroko Shimbo on ‘Hiroko’s American Kitchen (Cooking with Japanese Flavors);’ and Norman Van Aken on ‘My Key West Kitchen.’

•  2 p.m.: A Reading: Robert Goolrick on ‘Heading Out to Wonderful,’ Christopher Tilghman on ‘The Right Hand Shore’ and Robert Olen Butler on ‘The Hot Country.’

•  2 p.m.: New Fiction for Teens: Malin Alegria on ‘Border Town #3: Falling Too Fast,’ Jessica Martinez on ‘The Space Between Us’ and Thane Rosenbaum on ‘The Stranger Within Sarah Stein.’

•  2 p.m.: El nuevo poder de la mujer, panel con Pilar Castaño, Mariela Dabbah y Alberto Ferreras (in Spanish).

•  2 p.m.: New Fiction: Alan Cheuse on ‘Paradise (or) Eat Your Face, ‘Anthony C. Winkler on ‘God Carlos and Paul Lisicky on Unbuilt Projects.’

•  2 p.m.: Kris D’Agostino on ‘The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac,’ Lauren Groff on ‘Arcadia,’ Jami Attenberg on ‘The Middlesteins’ and Eleanor Brown on ‘The Weird Sisters.’

•  2 p.m.: A Reading: Deni Y. Bechard on ‘Cures For Hunger, Nura Maznavi on ‘The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women,’ Susan Kushner Resnick on ‘What a Holocaust Survivor Taught Me.’

•  2 p.m.: City Noir, Desert Noir: Colin Channer and Kwame Dawes on ‘Kingston Noir’ and Robert Arellano on ‘Curse the Names.’

•  2:30 p.m.: Graphic Novels: Noah Van Sciver on ‘The Hypo: A Graphic Portrait of the Melancholic Young Lincoln’ and Russ Kick on ‘The Graphic Canon.’

•  2:30 p.m.: On War: ‘Jake Tapper on American Valor,’ Benjamin Busch on ‘Dust to Dust: A Memoir’ and Brian Castner on ‘A Story of War and the Life That Follows.’

•  2:30 p.m.: Deborah Dash Moore, Howard Rock and Daniel Soyer on ‘City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York.’

•  2:45 p.m.: Lo nuevo de Giovanna Rivero y Carlos Wynter Melo (in Spanish).

•  3 p.m.: See, Learn, Eat: Cooking Demonstration: Liz Gutman and Jen King on ‘The Liddabit Sweets Candy Cookbook.’

•  3 p.m.: Political Lives: Rachel L. Swarns, ‘American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama,’ William Chafe, ‘Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal,’ and Manuel Roig-Franzia, ‘The Rise of Marco Rubio.’

•  3 p.m.: Historia y política reflejadas en la ficción, con Roberto Ampuero y Fernando Aramburu (in Spanish).

•  3 p.m.: On Paris: Eloisa James on ‘Paris In Love,’ Pamela Druckerman on ‘One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting’ and Rosecrans Baldwin on ‘Paris, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down.’

•  3:30 p.m.: Mark Helprin, reading from his new novel, ‘In Sunlight and In Shadow.’

•  3:30 p.m.: Laini Taylor on ‘Days of Blood and Starlight,’ Tonya Hurley on ‘The Blessed’ and Gennifer Albin on ‘Crewel.’

•  3:30 p.m.: New Fiction: A Reading: Justin Torres on ‘We the Animals,’ Nina Revoyr on ‘Wingshooters,’ Adam Johnson on ‘The Orphan Master’s Son’ and Scott Hutchins on ‘A Working Theory of Love.’

•  3:30 p.m.: Brave New Future: Speculative Fiction: Ellen Brazer on ‘And So It Was Written.’

•  3:30 p.m.: A Reading from New Comic Novels: Mark Leyner on ‘The Sugar Frosted Nutsack,’ David Abrams on ‘Fobbit’ and Antoine Wilson on ‘Panorama City.’

•  3:30 p.m.: Lives Lived: Kate Bornstein on ‘A Queer and Pleasant Danger,’ Susie Bright on ‘Big Sex Little Death,’ Jeanne Cordova on ‘A Memoir of Love and Revolution’ and T Cooper on ‘Real Man Adventures.’

•  4 p.m.: Exploring Middle Earth: Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull on ‘The Art of The Hobbit’ and Corey Olsen on ‘Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.’

•  4 p.m.: Three Journeys: Andrew McCarthy on ‘The Longest Way Home,’ Eric Weiner on ‘My Flirtations with the Divine’ and Scott Wallace on the ‘Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes.’

•  4 p.m.: Leopoldo Brizuela y Alberto Ruy Sánchez con sus nuevas novelas (in Spanish).

•  4 p.m.: La novela negra cubana, con Ignacio Cárdenas Acuña, Matías Montes Huidobro y Rodolfo Pérez Valero (in Spanish).

•  4 p.m.: New Fiction: Pam Houston on ‘Contents May Have Shifted,’ Christopher Beha on ‘What Happened to Sophie Wilder,’ Rachel Joyce on ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ and Eleni Gage on ‘Other Waters.’

•  4:30 p.m.: See, Learn, Eat: Cooking Demonstration: Yvan Lemoine on ‘Comidas USA.’

•  4:30 p.m.: Dark Worlds: J. Gabriel Gates on ‘Blood Zero Sky’ and Conor McCreery on ‘Kill Shakespeare.’

•  4:30 p.m.: The 99 Percent: James A. Robinson, Chris Hedges, Ishmael Reed, and Bryan Mealer

•  4:30 p.m.: A Miami Picaresque: J.J. Colagrande on ‘Decò’ and Yousi Mazpule on ‘Jinetera: Story of a Cuban Prostitute.’

•  5:15 p.m.: Una Cita con Jaime Bayly (in Spanish).

•  5:30 p.m.: Cine y censura: el caso P.M., con Orlando Jiménez Leal y Manuel Zayas (in Spanish).

Bryan Mealer had heard the stories of the town at the edge of the Everglades that produced two exports: sugar and football stars.

He had heard about how the kids there ran faster, played better. How they inhabited the NFL by the dozens: 30 since 1985, with five of those drafted in the first round.

But as a freelance journalist who had covered the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he knew there were more to the clichés, more chapters to the story.

So Mealer chased the story all the way to Belle Glade — renting a room at the Horizon Inn on Main Street for six months, commuting monthly another six months, then writing in a tool shed-turned-studio in the back of his New York farm house for another year.

The result is a complex portrait of the community: Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town (Crown Archetype, $25).

“I was stunned to see this kind of poverty and decay so close to the gated communities of Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale,’’ said Mealer, author of the New York Times bestseller The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. “I knew I wanted to know more about Belle Glade.’’

What he found was a rich story steeped in the sugar cane fields, a great legacy of football and the meaning of proud people making do.

But there is something far more compelling here: Beyond football, the people of Belle Glade are remarkably resilient, fighters who rise above the stereotypes.

The layers and layers make for authentic storytelling as Mealer introduces readers to Coach Jesse Hester, the town’s first star NFL player who returns home to coach at Glades Central High School; Kelvin Benjamin, a highly recruited receiver; Mario Rowley, a quarterback intent on winning championship for his late parents; and Jonteria Williams, a gifted student who dreams of becoming a doctor. Together, they face the 2010 school year and the next chapter of their lives.

Mealer, 37, who now lives with his family in Austin, chatted with The Miami Herald a few days before he was scheduled to make an appearance at the Miami Book Fair International.

He speaks at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Miami International Book Fair at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus, Building 2, Room 2106 (Batten).

Q: How did you get access to the players and students of Glade Central High School?

A: I called Jesse Hester over and over. He never answered my calls. I had spoken at a Florida school about the Congo and one of the teachers there knew him and made the introduction. We finally talked and he told him I wanted to tell the story of Belle Glade through the lens of football. I told him I wanted to follow the football team. He said OK come out. He gave me total access to the players. He is a very nice guy, a good guy and friendly. I know he didn’t trust me at first, I think he was kinda waiting for me to go away. In fact, a few times, he looked at me and said, “Are you still here?”

Q: So much that is negative has been written about Belle Glade that residents are not very trusting of the media. How did you get them to open the doors?

A: People were really wary of talking to me. It’s a small town and very insular and people were like, who is this white guy from New York? Really what happened is I just stuck around. I got a room on Main Street. I would go running in the morning and soon people were blowing their horn when they saw me. I went on the gospel station and formally introduced myself and said I wanted to do this story and to try to understand the history. People eventually warmed up to me and I started getting invitations for Sunday dinner.

Q: How many people did you interview for the book?

A: I spoke with over 100 people.

Q: The book focuses on several characters. How did you make your selections?

A: I knew I needed the coach because he had a good story: NFL player comes back home to coach. I gave some attention to several of the players, going to lunch with them and talking to them and their families for hours. So I cast a line and the players sort of revealed themselves. I knew I wanted to focus on another character besides a football player. I went to the principal and said I want the smartest kid in the class, someone that has a real shot at college. They told me about Jonteria Williams.

Q: Jonteria Williams is the only character not related to football. What made her character so special?

A: She told us something else about the town, and that is that you have to be so driven in Belle Glade and towns like it because of the forces against you. You have to be so diligent and so driven and you have to have such a crystal focus on what you want to do.

Q: How did you know when the story had come to its natural end?

A: The end of the story got messy. I wish it could have been cleaner but they ended up firing the coach at the end of the season. The football season gave me a natural arc. That gave me a structure and I thought it would end with the last game of the season. But they ended up firing [Coach] Hester and then it got real messy and I had to spend a lot of time to get that part right. It took months for it to reveal itself. I didn’t even talk to Jesse Hester until after he had been fired. He was really superstitious and he didn’t want to talk until after the season.

Q: Have you kept in touch with the main characters? How are they doing now?

A: Yes, I actually texted every one of them this week. They are all excited about the book coming out. Mario dropped out of school. He ended up going to a junior college in Orlando but will be returning to North Carolina Central University in the fall. Kelvin had a slow start at Florida State but did a complete turnaround and is doing well. Jonteria is also doing well at Florida Atlantic University. And Hester is now the athletic director at Lake Worth High School.

Q: Ultimately, is football good for Belle Glade?

A: I still think football is good for Belle Glade because it’s one of the ways to get the chance to go to school and until academics take that place, I think it’s really valuable. The football culture is not always healthy as we see in the book and it’s not always fair but it still allows these guys to get out of the town and see the world, I can’t see how that is not valuable.

Q: What is the book’s greatest gift?

A: It’s the explanation of the periphery, the things that happen out of focus. It’s hard to live in that town but most everybody there wants the same thing. They want to have a good job, they want their kids to be safe, don’t want their kids to get shot or go to prison. I think focusing on that part of the story, interviewing the people with dreams and aspirations for their children and a sense of dignity, portraying them as people and not as players.

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