Voice of the River – Book Review

You can be an activist at any age.

Sawgrass Prairie at Everglades National Park

Voice of the River is a fascinating tale about Marjory Stoneman Douglas the “Grandmother of the Everglades.” This book is her autobiography created by author John Rothchild from numerous visits with her and over 200 hours of recordings.

Ever since 2013, each March I make a point of reading at least one book by or about a woman environmentalist in honor of Women’s History Month. Throughout the year, I add books to my running “to read” list and then in February I decide which book to read for March.

One year I discovered Marjory Stoneman Douglas and her now famous 1947 book The Everglades: River of Grass and intended to read it. However, our local library system did not have the book so I left it on my “to read” list hoping to find a used copy at some point in the future.

Voice of the River Book Cover

Last September, far from the Florida Everglades, I stumbled across Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Voice of the River in a used bookstore located in downtown Omaha, Nebraska. At first, I thought it was the book on my list but when I realized it was Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ autobiography, I instantly knew that I wanted to read the book for Women’s History Month 2019.

It turned out to be one of those books that you cannot put down.

Book Review

Although neither Marjory Stoneman Douglas or John Rothchild knew it at the time, their joint book project Voice of the River was initiated at a 1973 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public hearing about a proposed suburb on the edges of the Everglades National Park. They were both opposed to the development.

In the book’s introduction, Rothchild describes getting to know Douglas and gives you a preview of the woman you are about to meet. Make sure you wear cool clothes because as you take a seat in the main room of her tiny home in Coconut Grove, Florida you will notice she does not have air conditioning. Prepare to be entertained and surprised by her story.

This excerpt sets the stage.

“The hardest thing is to tell the truth about oneself. One doesn’t like to remember unpleasant details, but forgetting them makes one’s life seem disorganized. I’m not at all sure how to go along but I’ll begin at the beginning.”

The first section of the book covers Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ early years from her birth on April 7, 1890, in Minneapolis, Minnesota through her tumultuous childhood, the years she spent earning her degree at Wellesley College, and what turned out to be a strange and short marriage. If you are paying attention, you will get a glimpse of the environmentalist she will later become as she recalls her father reading to her from the Song of Hiawatha.

Next, Douglas recounts moving to Florida in 1915 to live with her father and stepmother. This is where she launched her life as a writer by accepting a temporary assignment as the Miami Herald’s society editor. After a short stint overseas in 1918 with the American Red Cross near the end of World War I, she returned home and expanded her role at the newspaper. She also got involved with a group of people advocating for an Everglades National Park.

Moving on, Douglas talks about deciding in 1924 to focus on her freelance writing and how she made her living writing articles and short stories for the next 15 years. She became a homeowner in 1926 and she was still living in the same house during the writing of this book. She often said that projects just sort of fell into her lap and that was the case with her most famous book.

The Everglades-River of Grass Book Cover

Early in the 1940s, Hervey Allen asked her to write a book about the Miami River for a Rivers of America series. She recalls responding by saying, “Hervey, you can’t write a book about the Miami River. It’s only about an inch long.” She thought the Miami River and the Everglades were connected and she suggested writing a book about that. He agreed.

After several years of research and writing, The Everglades: River of Grass hit the bookstores in November 1947. All 7,500 copies of that first edition were sold by Christmas that year.

20 years after the publication of The Everglades: River of Grass Marjory Stoneman Douglas became an environmental activist. She founded the Friends of the Everglades when Michael Chenoweth handed her a dollar and became its first member. She was 78 at the time. Over the next twenty years or so, she became a staunch advocate for protecting the Everglades.

At the end of the book, Douglas shares her thoughts on politics, old age, and faith.

The Bottom Line

Marjory Stoneman Douglas epitomizes the proverbial woman ahead of her time. An independent and outspoken woman, she was a suffragist, journalist, civil rights supporter, author, environmentalist, speaker, and an activist. She continued working into her second century and lived to 108.

John Rothchild is an author who had the distinct honor of helping Marjory Stoneman Douglas with her autobiography. I think he did a masterful job of creating a book that brings her to life for readers in the 21st century and beyond.

Reading Voice of the River I could imagine myself sitting and talking with Marjory Stoneman Douglas. She was both lyrical and forthright. I was amazed at some of the things I learned about her. I hope you will read the book to discover this remarkable woman for yourself.

Blue Heron and Alligator at Everglades National Park
A blue heron and an alligator hanging out in Everglades National Park. Photo credit – D. Harris/Everglades National Park Service. Click here to open the photo.

In 1993, when she was 103, President Bill Clinton awarded Marjory Stoneman Douglas the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor granted by the U.S. The medal citation reads:

“Marjory Stoneman Douglas personifies passionate commitment. Her crusade to preserve and restore the Everglades has enhanced our Nation’s respect for our precious environment, reminding all of us of nature’s delicate balance. Grateful Americans honor the ‘Grandmother of the Glades’ by following her splendid example in safeguarding America’s beauty and splendor for generations to come.”

I am still interested in reading The Everglades: River of Grass. Perhaps someday I will find a copy in another bookstore far from Everglades.

Featured Image at Top: Sawgrass prairie at the Everglades National Park – photo credit G. Gardner/Everglades National Park Service. Click here to open the photo.

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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information and to spark conversation. Her mission is to live more lightly on Earth and to persuade everyone else to do the same.

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