In the annals of South Florida history, Marjory Stoneman Douglas looms large, both because of her tremendous accomplishments – a pioneering writer and advocate for both women’s rights and environmental conservation – and the impressive span of her life. Arriving in Miami in 1915, she had witnessed both the city’s ebullient youth and its glossy adulthood by the time she died in 1998.
So it’s surprising to find her in the opening pages of Lori McMullen’s biofiction debut, “Among the Beautiful Beasts” (She Writes Press, 2021) fleeing breathlessly in the night from an unknown pursuer through the Everglades she would later immortalize in her books. “This is love, I think,” declares a then-30-year-old Marjory. “This is the only kind of love I’ve ever known.”
Who – or what – is she running from? And how will she escape?
These are the questions the novel plumbs, with an honest and lyrical voice, tracing the course of Marjory’s childhood and young womanhood, her slow but determined coming into her own. Like the young woman running through the dark, it’s a story that is fraught with surprising perils – an estranged father, mental illness, a failed marriage, and the pressures of a society that does not easily tolerate brilliant women. This fictionalized life story unlocks dimensions of the real Douglas’s life that are often lost in the wizened, smiling, sun hat-sporting portraits of the mature Florida heroine.
Even if you’re not a Florida history buff – or, for that matter, a women’s history or an environmental history buff – the book might still dazzle you with passages like McMullen’s description of a 1915 party at the ostentatious Vizcaya mansion: “I was there to watch them,” recounts the cub reporter Marjory. “Like an ornithologist, little notebook in hand, I kept to the fringes and observed the society ladies and pioneer-baron gents in their rainbowed plumage, recording their movements and their conversations as they strutted through whatever polished rookery they happened to be in that night.”
Gorgeous! And just one of the descriptions of life in the heady early days of Miami and South Florida that make this book sparkle.
One thing that’s less clear is where the truth of Douglas’s life ends and McMullen’s fictionalizations begin, and some readers may find themselves scrambling to Google to clarify which is which (and they’ll find a lot of crossover). Even so, McMullen’s story of finding your way through your dark night of the soul – or a dark night in the Everglades – is a powerful and powerfully told tale in its own right.