To put it simply, Lori McMullen has written a beautiful book. She interprets the early life of Marjory Stoneman Douglas so that we can know how Marjory was made into the woman she became. All of us are shaped by our experiences and relationships as we travel through life. What we do with our trials and tribulations is what finally makes us.
Any woman who has experienced hardships or made mistakes (and haven’t we all?) will relate to Marjory—her conviction to hang on to a loveless and even destructive marriage, for example. Her life follows a cycle of being a caregiver to others without expectation of love being returned. Among the Beautiful Beasts is about how Marjory breaks that cycle and learns to care and love herself, and, importantly, how she becomes the woman who is remembered now as a journalist, a suffragette, and an activist devoted to the conservation of the Everglades.
After spending her childhood caring for her mother, who has fallen into madness and whom she loves deeply, Marjory is conflicted between having a life for herself and caring for her needy mother. She has to break away. With her grandmother’s encouragement and her aunt’s support, she is able to attend college. Her grandmother, who has always dreamed of being able to vote, sends Marjory out into the world to participate in the effort for women’s suffrage.
After graduating Wellesley, Marjory seems well on her way to emancipation and a fulfilling career—until she is tripped up by a bad marriage. Her sense of resignation, obligation, and loving servitude returns when her husband goes to jail and reveals himself as needy and self-centered. He uses and abuses her dedication until her Uncle Ned challenges her to make some difficult decisions. Marjory remembers the story of the birch tree in Hiawatha (the tree sacrifices its bark for a man to build a canoe) and becomes determined: “I will not be a birch tree. I will not become someone else’s canoe.”
Early-twentieth-century divorce is a long and grueling process. In the meantime, Marjory reconnects with her estranged father in Florida. There, she slowly falls in love with South Florida, and the Everglades become her passion. The alternating chapters of running through the moonlit marshes adds an eerie quality to the story, capturing our imagination and engaging the reader to the climax.