Peter Matthiessen's great American epic-Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man's River, and Bone by Bone-was conceived as one vast mysterious novel, but because of its length it was originally broken up into three books. In this bold new rendering, Matthiessen has cut nearly a third of the overall text and collapsed the time frame while deepening the insights and motivations of his characters with brilliant rewriting throughout. In Shadow Country, he has marvelously distilled a monumental work, realizing his original vision.
Inspired by a near-mythic event of the wild Florida frontier at the turn of the twentieth century, Shadow Country reimagines the legend of the inspired Everglades sugar planter and notorious outlaw E. J. Watson, who drives himself relentlessly toward his own violent end at the hands of neighbors who mostly admired him, in a killing that obsessed his favorite son.
Shadow Country traverses strange landscapes and frontier hinterlands inhabited by Americans of every provenance and color, including the black and Indian inheritors of the archaic racism that, as Watson's wife observed, "still casts its shadow over the nation."
Peter Matthiessen's lyrical and illuminating work in the Watson narrative has been praised highly by such contemporaries as Saul Bellow, William Styron, and W. S. Merwin. Joseph Heller said "I read it in great gulps, up each night later than I wanted to be, in my hungry impatience to find out more and more."
- National Book Awards
Matthiessen's Watson trilogy is a touchstone of modern American literature, and yet, as the author writes in a foreword of this reworking, with the publication of Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man's River and Bone by Bone, he felt, after twenty years of toil... frustrated and dissatisfied. So after six or seven years of re-creation--rewriting many passages, compressing the timeline, shortening the work by some 400 pages and fleshing out supporting cast members (notably black farmhand Henry Short)--the three books are in one volume for the first time, and the result is remarkable. Florida sugarcane farmer and infamous murderer--the latter bit according to legend, of course--Edgar J. Watson is brought to life through marvelous eyewitness accounts and journal entries from friends, family and enemies alike. Book One (formerly Killing Mister Watson) creates a vivid portrait of the untamed southwest Florida of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and recounts Watson's life--with questionable accuracy--beginning with his arrival in south Florida and replaying key events leading up to his being gunned down in the swamps. Watson, who stands accused of murdering a young couple who won't leave his land, is roundly despised and feared, so much so that parents frighten their children into obedience by threatening a visit from Watson. The second book takes place several decades after Watson's murder and relates the travails of Watson's son, Lucius, now a WWI veteran and scholar, as he tries to write a true account of his father's life. Lucius journeys back to his childhood home in search of answers from the same people who saw his father killed. As he investigates the contradictory claims and rumors (like that of a Watson Pay Day, when Watson would murder his farmhands rather than pay them), he tracks down his long-lost brother, Robert, and learns a horrible family secret. The final piece is perhaps the best, taking the form of Watson's chilling memoir. Recounting his life, from the years of paternal abuse right up until his jaw-dropping perspective on the day of his death, Watson reveals his strained relationship with his children, a personality crisis with his scabrous alter ego and the truth behind the many myths. Where Watson was a magnificent character before, he comes across as nothing short of iconic here; it's difficult to find another figure in American literature so thoroughly and convincingly portrayed. When Watson delivers his final line, it's as close as most will come to witnessing a murder. (Apr.)
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April 07, 2008
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Excerpt from Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
We never had no trouble from Mister Watson, and from what we seen, he never caused none, not amongst his neighbors. All his trouble come to him from the outside.
E. J. Watson turned up at Half Way Creek back in 1892, worked on the produce farms awhile, worked in the cane. Hard worker, too, but it don't seem like he hoed cane for the money, it was more like he wanted a feel for our community. Strong, good-looking feller in his thirties, dark red hair, well made, thick through the shoulders but no fat on him, not in them days. Close to six foot and carried himself well, folks noticed him straight off and no one fooled with him. First time you seen the man you wanted him to like you--he was that kind. Wore a broad black hat and a black frock coat with big pockets, made him look bulky. Times we was cutting buttonwood with ax and hand saw, two-three cords a day--that's hot, hard, humid work, case you ain't done it--Ed Watson never changed that outfit. Kept that coat on over his denim coveralls, he said, cause he never knew when he might expect some company from up north. Might smile a little when he said that but never give no explanation.
Folks didn't know where this stranger come from and nobody asked. You didn't ask a man hard questions, not in the Ten Thousand Islands, not in them days. Folks will tell you different today, but back then there weren't too many in our section that wasn't on the run from someplace else. Who would come to these rain-rotted islands with not hardly enough high ground to build a outhouse, and so many miskeeters plaguing you in the bad summers you thought you'd took the wrong turn straight to Hell?
Old Man William Brown was cutting cane, and he listened to them men opining how this Watson feller was so able and so friendly. Old Man William took him a slow drink of water, give a sigh. Willie Brown said, "Well, now, Papa, is that sigh a warnin?" And his daddy said, "I feel somethin, is all. Same way I feel the damp." They all respected Old Man William, but there weren't one man in the cane that day that took him serious.
All the same, we noticed quick, you drawed too close to E. J. Watson, he eased out sideways like a crab, gave himself room. One time, my half-uncle Tant Jenkins come up on him letting his water, and Mister Watson come around so fast Tant Jenkins thought this feller aimed to piss on him. By the time Tant seen it weren't his pecker he had in his hand, that gun was halfway back into them coveralls, but not so fast he could not be sure of what he seen.
Being brash as well as nervous, Tant says, "Well, now, Mister Watson! Still es-pectin company from the North?" And Watson says, very agreeable, "Any company that shows up unexpected will find me ready with a nice warm welcome."
Ed Watson had money in his pocket when he come to Half Way Creek, which ain't none of my business, but in all the years I knew him, right up till near the end, he always come up with money when he had to. We never knew till later he was on the dodge, but Half Way Creek was too handy to the lawmen for his liking. Ain't nothing much out there today but a few old cisterns, but Half Way Creek had near a dozen families then, more than Everglade or Chokoloskee. Course back in them days there weren't hardly a hundred souls in that whole hundred mile of coast south to Cape Sable.
Mister Watson weren't at Half Way Creek but a few days when he paid cash money for William Brown's old schooner. Ain't many would buy a sixty-foot schooner that didn't know nothing about boats. Time he was done, Ed Watson was one of the best boatmen on this coast.
Mister Watson and me cut buttonwood all around Bay Sunday, run it over to Key West, three dollars a cord. I seen straight off that Ed. J. Watson meant to go someplace, I seen my chance, so I signed on to guide him down around the Islands. I was just back from a year down there, plume hunting for Chevelier; I turned that Frenchman over to Bill House. We was just young fellers then, a scant fourteen. No school on Chokoloskee so you went to work.
Folks ask, "Would you have worked for Watson if you knowed about him what you know today?" Well, hell, I don't know what I know today and they don't neither. With so many stories growed up around that feller, who is to say which ones was true? What I seen were a able-bodied man, mostly quiet, easy in his ways, who acted according to our ideas of a gentleman. And that was all we had, ideas, cause we had never seen one in this section, unless you would count Preacher Gatewood, who brought the Lord to Everglade back in 1888 and took Him away again when he departed, the men said. Some kind of a joke, wouldn't surprise me.
Most of our old Glades pioneers was drifters and deserters from the War Between the States who never got the word that we was licked. Moonshiners and plume hunters, the most of 'em.