Christopher Knowlton, author of Cattle Kingdom and former Fortune writer, takes an in-depth look at the spectacular Florida land boom of the 1920s and shows how it led directly to the Great Depression.
It is difficult to go wrong when writing of questionable behavior and wretched excess in Florida, a fact that is borne out yet again in Christopher Knowlton’s colorful Bubble in the Sun, a wide-ranging treatment of the ill-fated South Florida land boom of the 1920s ... the truly complex roles here are Douglas, Merrick and Mizner, the last a singularly talented artist whose relationship with his troubled brother Wilson is, in Mr. Knowlton’s expert telling, worth the price of admission.
... does not remotely make the case that the Florida land boom of the 1920s 'brought on the Great Depression.' (Knowlton, in fact, effectively disavows the assertion himself, so I’ll blame an overweening publisher for the misleading subtitle.) But the book does offer a story that, though often told before, is worth the spirited retelling Knowlton brings to it ... Knowlton is not the most sure-footed of anecdotalists. Especially in his opening chapters, the reader is too often led to the edge of a telling revelation only to find nothing there...But once Knowlton gets to the bubble’s inevitable puncture, the sheer gravitational pull that eventually grounds all speculative balloons exerts its irresistible power. Ambition morphs into mendacity, the profit motive becomes avarice ... The one great weakness of Bubble in the Sun is the absence of those suckers. Entirely missing are the hapless (or, if you prefer, foolish, or credulous, or maybe just plain greedy) individuals who climbed aboard the bandwagon — earnest dreamers who thought they were buying a retirement haven on a beach but ended up with a patch of fetid swamp; small-time speculators who made some fast money, then crashed while reaching for yet more; the thousands upon thousands you can find lingering at the finishing line of any speculative mania, left holding nothing but scraps of worthless paper.
Carl Hiaasen could have cooked up Knowlton’s cast of characters ... This crowded stage poses risks that Knowlton doesn’t entirely avoid. His pacing flags when the focus shifts to Douglas, whose great achievements as a crusading Everglades conservationist would come decades in the future, after the land-rush years. She simply doesn’t have enough to do to make her appearances compelling. More troubling is a frustrating sin of omission ... The banks that had bet their solvency on...future development failed, wiping out the savings of countless depositors. Knowlton concedes the embargo imposed a 'forced recess' in the frenzy. As such, it surely deserved some of the attention devoted to Marjory Douglas. Still, Knowlton delivers a captivating story, bubbling with colorful anecdotes and surprising research.