The Everglades and Marjory Stoneman Douglas inspire debut novel
you can take Lori McMullen from the Everglades, but you can’t take the Everglades out of Lori McMullen.
Currently a resident of Chicago, McMullen grew up in unincorporated Dade County, Florida. The Everglades captivated her. Her family did not share her enthusiasm. “My family didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t take many vacations,” she says. “But the only trip we made every year was to Marco Island on the west coast of Florida. We were supposed to be driving on Route 41, the old Alligator Alley, with its twists and turns and potholes. Once you got out of Miami, it was just the Everglades until you got to Marco Island, and I loved it. I would look out the window for alligators and birds. The rest of my family couldn’t wait to get to the other side; no one appreciated anything around them, but i remember thinking, This is a very cool place.†
Her imagination was further fueled by Everglades encounters she experienced while in school. “In sixth grade,” she recalls, “my class went to camp there. One of the things that stays with me is a night walk that was exciting and terrifying at the same time. We were crossing a bridge and our guide told us to shine our flashlights on the swampy water. You could see these pink glowing eyes, and he said they were alligators.”
So when it came time to write her first novel, it was only natural that the setting would be the Everglades, with the protagonist arguably the fiercest champion, Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Among the beautiful beastsThat Kirkus Reviews Hailed as “a fantastic debut” and “a masterful portrait,” is a historical novel that serves as a sort of origin story for Douglas, the future activist and tireless advocate of the Everglades who protected it from developers. The story paints a vivid portrait of Douglas as a passionate reader, nature lover and champion of women’s suffrage. Despite a fraught upbringing (a chronically unemployed father, a mother who was in a sanitarium after a slump) and an unstable marriage to Kenneth Douglas, an elderly con man, she emerges as a woman whose unwavering belief in herself has made her an untamable conservation icon. made .
Florida has been a predominant setting in McMullen’s writing. “Place is very important to me,” she says. “I’ve always been drawn to Southern literature – I read William Faulkner’s While I lay dying once a year. As I wrote my short stories, I realized that the place I kept returning to was South Florida, and as I developed my novel, I started to focus on Marjory Stoneman Douglas.”
Douglas’ name, McMullen laments, is perhaps most associated with the 2018 high school named after her that saw a shooting that killed 12 students (McMullen is passionate about recovering it from that tragic event) . But growing up,”[Douglas] was always discussed at school,” she says. “When you heard about Florida’s history, you learned about it. [And as] I thought the Everglades would be such a strong place to write about [for my novel]Her name flashed through my mind. But I didn’t know much about her, other than that she was very, very old when she died (she lived to be 108) and was working to protect the Everglades. I started doing some research and realized she had a fascinating early life.”
McMullen did not consider the writing of Douglas’s story non-fiction. “A fair number of books have been written about her, and I didn’t want to be limited by reality,” she says with a laugh. “I had just finished reading Paula McLain’s revolve around the suna historical novel about Beryl Markham, who flew across the Atlantic in the 1920s, and I thought, What a cool project to find: a lesser-known woman who did something really cool† [whose early life could be] adapted into a fictional story that could be more of a page turner than a biography.”
Not that she “made up anything” in coming up with Douglas’s story, she says. On the contrary, historical fiction gave her artistic freedom. She was guided by Douglas’s own writings. Douglas’ pioneering work, Gras Riversays McMullen, “writing is very lavish and flowery, while her autobiography was very business-like.”
The chapters in Among the beautiful beasts varied narrative that advances the story and builds suspense and shorter, more poetic and lyrical prose, such as when Douglas falls in love with a colleague Miami Herald writer named Andy. A passionate beach encounter is broken up by personal revelations, the most important of which is that Douglas is technically still married:
Time fell from the abyss and fell to the ground with a thud. Stunned but not broken, the fallen microseconds tried to reorganize themselves, trying to regain linearity in their shaken realm of existence. Moonlight and shadow framed the night clouds, blooming like summer hydrangeas, as time faltered and I waited for Andy to say he didn’t care, either.
It took McMullen two years to write Among the beautiful beasts† She was compelled by Douglas’ mission, which appeals to her so much (“I have so much to say about this, I don’t know where to begin,” she says with a laugh). She calls Douglas’ activism on behalf of the Everglades “a microcosm of our larger climate crisis and the responsibility people have for the environment.” But part of the point of my book is that: [Douglas] could see himself in the Everglades [and experience] the feeling of wanting to protect something vulnerable and exploited. So when she got to Florida and saw developers seize and use the land without any responsibility, she was able to connect with each other on a personal level and take a stand.”
“If people can see that connection to their own environment,” McMullen continued, “they’ll be more inclined to work to protect it.”
McMullen hopes her book will reconnect people with Douglas’ life and work. “She was an extraordinary woman,” she says. “And furthermore, I hope it can help to be transported to another time and place [readers] forget the stress of what is going on right now.”
She herself has read thrillers during the pandemic. “I discovered Ruth Ware and Lisa Jewell,” she says. “They were the only thing I wanted to read because they were so escapist. You could forget everything that was happening around you.”
Donald Liebenson is a writer from Chicago.