Customer Reviews: Shadow Country (Modern Library Paperbacks)
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on January 4, 2009
For nearly twenty years I've been obsessed by Edgar Watson, the Everglades Planter known as "Bloody Watson" and "Emperor Watson" for the 50-odd murders attributed to him by a century of legend and myth.

Peter Matthiessen was way more obsessed than me, writing four novels about Watson. I read the first in 1990. The last just this past December. It, Shadow Country, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2008. It is Matthiessen's masterpiece, and I have no qualms saying it is among the top novels in all of American literature, a book I would stack against Moby Dick, Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Gravity's Rainbow, White Noise ....

Matthiessen does several important things that won my admiration. First, his voice, his writing, is a very spare, zen language that is short on embellishment but poetic in its nature. Second, the structure that he brings to the narrative is very inventive. The first part of the novel is the tale of Watson's death at the hands of more than two dozen of his neighbors who gun him down after a hurricane in the fall of 1910, hitting him with 33 bullets. That part, which formed the basis of Killing Mister Watson, is an succession of reminiscences by those on that Chokoloskee beach, a backwater Rashomon that bring some amazing vernacular, history, and drama. The book starts with the killing -- and what follows is an utter mind-twister of why Watson was killed.

The second part of the novel is the story of one of Watson's sons, Lucius, who tries to reassemble the facts and seperate them from the myths about his father, who, among other legends, was the reputed murderer of outlaw queen Belle Starr. Lucius compiles a list of those on that beach, a list which makes him a very suspicious figure to the survivors and their descendants, back-water plume and gator poachers who would prefer that Lucius not be asking so many questions. The detective work, the sheer genealogical complexity of Lucius' quest is a reminder to the reader -- this is a true story. Matthiessen's research and attention to detail would shame a historian.

And finally, the true masterpiece in the three tales is the first person account by Watson himself, a story that begins with his childhood in the post-Civil War Reconstruction of South Carolina (in the most violent county of the state), and his subsequent abuse at the hands of a drunken white trash father, his flight to north Florida and from there a descent into the American frontier, and Watson's lonely home on Chatham Bend, the only house between Chokoloskee and Key West, literally the end of America.

Read it. Matthiessen won my respect decades ago with Far Tortuga, The Snow Leopard, Men's Lives, but Shadow Country is my candidate for the Great American Novel.
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on December 20, 2008
I purchased this book simply because it won the National Book Award. I was very daunted by the pure size of the novel. I approached it like I would approach eating broccoli. It was something that I might not necessarily enjoy but would be good for me.

Once I passed the first 30 pages or so, I looked forward to reading it every day. What a superb study of character, perception, point of view, American history, the environment, Florida etc.

This is such a meaty, worthwhile piece of writing. I truly loved every minute of my time with this book and was sorry when it ended.

It is structured in 3 parts.

Book I tells the story of EJ Watson who was killed by his neighbours in SW Florida in 1910. It gives his story from multiple points of view and many of the narrators are the ones that killed him. Their perceptions of him are based on some truth and many rumours. He appeared to be quite a villain who they rightly ridded the world of.

Book II is from the perspective of his son Lucius who becomes obsessed with the legend of his dead father and is hopeful that the many murders attributed to "Bloody" Watson are untrue. He meets resistance and many people don't want the past dredged up.

The third book is from EJ Watson's point of view and it is the perfect conclusion. We learn a lot more about what really happened though we are conscious that Watson himself may not always admit everything. Watson does do many bad things but of course his reputation causes many things to be blamed on him that he did not do. Although there are murders, Watson really sees himself as someone who tried to do good.

I found this to be one of the most complete and fascinating character studies I've ever read. The character is compelling and discovering the truth piece by piece was truly enjoyable.

This was originally a 1500 page book that the publisher released as three separate novels. Matthiessen was never happy with this being a trilogy and spent several years bringing it to a single 900 page volume. I have not read the original 3 novels and understand that some readers clearly believe the 1500 page version is superior. I certainly found this rendering to be a superior piece of literature though can't comment on it compared to the original.

I can't recommend this book highly enough.
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on July 15, 2008
Shadow Country (Modern Library)

I wondered why I should read another 900 pages of the Mr Watson saga. After all, I'd already ready the previous Watson books. But since i am a huge Peter Matthiessen fan I bought the book anyway. Time and money well spent, this is another masterpiece. He takes the reader so deep into the Florida backcountry of yesterday that you, like me, will probably catch yourself thinking in cracker dialect. I know how the story ends but read on in awe anyway. If you like brilliant dialog, well-drawn characters, often tragically flawed, an exotic setting, so near and far from today's Florida, read this book. I loved it!
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on July 27, 2009
I stumbled upon the legend of Edgar "Bloody" Watson completely by chance. Looking at maps of my home state, I'd always noticed Everglades City hanging on to the bottom of Florida's Gulf coast like a shipwreck survivor holding on to a rescue line. So when the family paid a visit to Everglades National Park last June, we took a side trip down there, and then continued on south to the very end of the road: the island of Chokoloskee.

Ted Smallwood's store still stands on the southwest corner of this southwest corner of Florida. It's a museum now, with the merchandise kept just the way it was when it finally closed as a working general store in the 1950s. There's an unsettlingly lifelike mannequin of ol' Ted himself, sitting in his rocking chair, forever holding his flyswatter. And there's a sign near the back porch mentioning that, as told in the book "Killing Mister Watson", Edgar Watson was shot dead by his neighbors right outside where the gentle waves lap upon the mud and mangroves.

The Smallwood Store & Museum didn't sell Matthiessen's books at the time (they do now), so I found a copy of "Killing Mr. Watson" at my local library. It was great, and I sought out the next book in the series immediately upon finishing it. That's when I discovered "Shadow Country", which is a one-volume "retelling" of the original Watson trilogy, and bought it instead.

The distilled, condensed, and rewritten origin of "Shadow Country" is mainly a strength - it varies by sections. Book one is based on "Killing Mr. Watson". The original was excellent, and this version is even better - well written, well paced, well-rounded characters, well polished to perfection.

This section has the same structure as the original stand-alone book on which its based. Various characters (mostly based on real people) from the Ten Thousand Islands tell Watson's story from their point of view and in their own varying voices. It's like reading transcripts of interviews from a very good documentary, which is not an easy form to pull off. Matthiessen is up to the task. Both Watson and the interviewees come to vivid life, and the deepening sense of doom rolls in like a crackling Florida thunderstorm. Despite knowing the basic story already from the original book, I could not put it down.

Book two, however, does not fare quite so well. I did not read the original book two ("Lost Man's River"), in which Watson's adult son tries to discover who his infamous father really was. However, this section feels highly condensed; a rushed bus tour of the original middle book of the trilogy. Years go by in a single paragraph; characters appear and disappear without having time to do much. Worst of all for an English teacher, the author often falls into telling the reader what's going on instead of showing as he did in book one. The prose slows down occasionally to that captivating rough, spare, and poetic style that graced the first section, only to speed away without warning to the next well-crafted scene, a journey which might take several pages and months of story time.

Counter-intuitively, I think that book two would have been better served with further cuts of sub-plots that are not given enough space to develop, allowing the narrative to focus on more effective and more important sections. And while it would require a change to the plot and/or real events, it would better serve as a link between books one and three if Watson's truth-seeking son would have somehow found his father's journal, which is the (fictional) source of book three.

Perhaps the biggest reason why the second section of "Shadow Country" is not as interesting as the first or third sections is that "Bloody" Watson himself does not make a (live) appearance. This problem is resoundingly corrected in book three, which is his long hinted-at memoir, written in powerful first person. The narrative goes back to his early childhood as this complex and always-surprising character tells his life story, explaining his violent past and stating his side of the events we'd heard in other voices earlier in the book. Watson is a gripping storyteller, and once his voice takes over, it doesn't let go until he's well and done with you... and his neighbors are done with him right where the book began, out behind Ted Smallwood's store. Riding shotgun (pardon the pun) with Edgar Watson is often shocking and sometimes uncomfortable, but it's one hell of an intense ride.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. The almost-true plot is fascinating, the characters (except for some in book two) are real and captivating, and the writing is generally as good as you'd expect when a master craftsman spends years on a labor of love. As someone who's personally explored southwest Florida, it's very impressive how Matthiessen profoundly captures the sense of the Ten Thousand Islands, an area that is still wild and isolated and just wants to be left alone. But for a more aggressive rewrite/edit of the middle section, "Shadow Country" might be the best literary novel I've ever read.
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on December 30, 2009
Shadow Country is Peter Matthiessen's reworked rendering of his earlier trilogy of historical fiction relating the life of the brutal Florida pioneer Edgar J. Watson. (This version still consists of three "books" and runs to almost 900 pages. I did not read the earlier version and so cannot offer comparisons between the two.)

Shadow Country is almost entirely set in the 1890's and early 1900's in a frontier region not widely known - the Ten Thousand Islands of south Gulf Coast Florida (the Everglades area). The area was absurdly remote at the time and presented such daunting challenges and dangers to any settlers that it was in fact nearly unsettled. And nearly all who did settle there were running or hiding from something, such as the law or deserted family members. Or they were just deeply anti-social. Aside from its remoteness, the area had almost nothing to recommend itself (I usually the qualified `almost nothing' in the vent that I think of some redeeming feature). It is brutally hot and humid, resistant to agriculture, possessed of dangerous animals (on sea and land), prone to calamitous storms, infested with mosquitoes, and inhabited by a large proportion of suddenly violent men as well as sociopathic criminals. This is the place Edgar J. Watson chooses to live.

Within the first ten pages of Book One, the reader confronts this sentence: "Oh Lord God," she cries. "They are killing Mr. Watson!" (Killing off the main character in the opening pages of a 900-page work of fiction proves Matthiessen is either brave or foolish.) The story is told with a dozen different narrators recalling Watson's arrival and life in the islands. Matthiessen's remarkable ability to produce so many distinctive voices makes this book incredibly readable. These people can all tell a story (they are in good practice life on the islands providing so much idle time). Matthiessen does not, however, make them all tell the same story; differences of viewpoint produce a fascinating ambiguity.

That Watson is an exceptional man is undoubted. Beginning with nothing, he manages to set himself up as a power to be reckoned with. He is also grandiose, violent, and merciless. But is he a murderer (several times over)? Opinions vary. He drinks too much. He loses what he has and what he wants and what he values. It is a hard life in a hard place. Edgar Watson was a hard man in dire need of some education and civilization, neither of which could be found in any quantity in the islands.

Book Two traces the story of Lucius Watson's "obsessive quest for the truth about his father" (NYT Review). It is the 1920's and Lucius is writing a history of his father's life (he has a doctorate in history), traveling to courthouse archives and interviewing long-forgotten family members. But he also has "the list" of the armed men who gunned down the elder Watson. The list naturally makes people nervous and some of them are quite dangerous. Book Two reveals some fascinating history, including the mostly unsavory operation of the law in south Florida, such as sheriff's renting the labor of black inmates to business interests (and pocketing much of the money). For more on that practice see Douglas Blackmon's stunning new history Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.

Book Three presents Edgar himself as the narrator of his life story from a child in South Carolina to various stopping places in Florida, Arkansas, and finally the Thousand Islands. The brutality of his childhood, the ready violence of white men toward blacks and of his own father toward him, makes Edgar's later actions more understandable person, if not justified. He develops a rigid personal code that demands recompense in full for any slight. He attempts a justification that reveals some complexity and contradictions, but falls short of the mark.

Shadow Country is an American epic of a mysterious historical character (yes, Edgar Watson really lived and died in the islands). The writing is at times exquisite. The story it tells is often brutal or just about plain hard life. The writing is compelling, the reading can be draining.
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on January 5, 2009
Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country just might be the great American novel. A nutshell description that grants this masterpiece its due is that it rivals Faulkner - in gravity of themes, complexity of moral vision and rootedness of place - but with a 75% reduction in confusion of narrative form and style.

I read the trilogy a decade ago and am now relishing rereading his single volume revision. Knowing this is something I will probably reread every 5 or 10 years, I bought the hardcover version.

A word (but not a caveat) for women: although this is "manly" fiction in subject matter - concerned as it is with the precarious existence of pioneer settlers in the ruthless, wild, wild West of the Florida frontier around 1900 - the multiple narrators, many of them female, present nuanced, detailed, contrasting and contradictory depictions of people and events. So, though this is perhaps masculine fiction, it is not Hemingway, in style or substance.
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on November 8, 2008
I am amazed to read others say the could not get into "Shadow Country", and having read the trilogy there is no need for another treatment. However, the brilliance of the author and the immediacy of this treatment is so powerful, I want to say it may be the best book by an American writer I have ever read.
The protagonists voices seem to have spoekn directly to the author, who has offered it all up to us, his readers. I feel as though I understand some of the mysteries surrounding the early south Florida - and U.S.) history (such as how could they have knowling nearly wiped out dozens of species of wildlife) were illuminated for me. Long the book took me a month to read, especially as parts inspired rereading.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in an absorbing period of our history, or just a great inspiringr read.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon February 12, 2009
This is a brilliant and epic story - that starts at the end with the killing of Mr. Watson and then goes back in time to explore how it came to be that this enterprising and charismatic farmer was perceived as such a threat that his neighbors couldn't see their way around gunning him down. The second part goes forward to the son who could never let the incident go and finds things get murkier the more he knows, and the third part moves back again to the man himself. Without being an "ideas" book, while staying close to the details of life, the book is deeply philosophical in its attention to the ambiguities through which notions of truth and justice find purchase.

I never read the original trilogy (Killing Mister Watson,Lost Man's River,Bone by Bone) that this novel revisits and integrates into a seamless whole -- but I have a hard time imagining that I've missed out since this volume feels so complete on its own. From the beginning it is clear that the concern is not with plot: the climactic event has already happened and all that remains is to explore its ambiguous underpinnings and its enigmatic reverberations. If you want a "story" then you might as well skip this one and go read something by Stephen King or Tom Clancy. But if you want to explore an era, to get a sense for the culture and ideas and ideals and idiosyncracies of the Floridian deep South, it's hard to imagine a richer, more subtly patterned work, with such a rich diversity of voices. I've enjoyed every minute of it, and learned a great deal about the background of the Floridian landscape I've come to call home. Highly recommended for those who like novelists whose work forces them to explore and encounter the new and strange - e.g. William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Octavia Butler, Neil Stephenson (just to name a few of my favorites, who I consider to be comparable in talent to Peter Matthiessen here).
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on June 6, 2008
And at his best, Mathiessen rates right up with Thomas Pynchon and Marilynne Robinson as the best American writers of our time. This is a great book, on many levels: it is funny, wise, sad, and beautifully, oh so beautifully, written. Mathiessen's descriptive writings are perfect; his characters are real, beyond any easy categorization. You can hear these people; you can feel the humidity of Florida and hear the birds calling. This is a truly great book.
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on October 13, 2008
A magnificent novel set in the rarely depicted early Florida Everyglades, filled with all kind of humanity, told in dialect so true you can still hear it down there. The rise of Big Sugar, the treatment of the blacks, and the notorious J.D. Watson and his numerous ofspring are subtle stories, many of the Roshomon type, or perhaps a Russian epic, but American to the bone, and beautifully written. I'm half-way through and know I'll be sorry when it ends. It should win a Pulitzer at the least, so that more people will read it.
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