- Hardcover: 372 pages
- Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (June 30, 1990)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0394554000
- ISBN-13: 978-0394554006
- Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.8 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #680,089 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Killing Mister Watson Hardcover – June 30, 1990
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From Publishers Weekly
The 20th book by the extraordinarily versatile author of fiction ( At Play in the Fields of the Lord ; Far Tortuga ) and nonfiction ( The Snow Leopard ; In the Spirit of Crazy Horse ) is a curious hybrid. "As a creature from prehistory is recreated from scattered bits of bone fleshed out on an armature of theory, so my idea of Mister Watson has been reimagined from the few hard 'facts' . . . " writes Matthiessen in an introductory note. Set in the Florida Everglades a century ago, the novel is based on the legend of Edgar J. Watson, the man said to have gunned down female outlaw Belle Starr. Matthiessen gives voices to a gamut of characters who knew Watson, and while it is intended that the book read with the deadpan of an oral history, those imagined--or "reimagined"--witnesses provide a rich chorus. The book starts with the murder of Watson by a group of his neighbors. The rest of the story is a slow piecing together of the puzzle that explains how this event came to pass. We never hear directly from Watson; he takes form slowly as facets of his life emerge, until his still-opaque profile remains outlined by all we have heard. With more artistry than In Cold Blood but with some of the same concerns, this is an imaginative and haunting evocation of a time and place, and the paradox of the tenderness and brutality with which real and imagined lives are filled.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From School Library Journal
YA-- More than 20 men wait in ambush as Mister Watson steps ashore and is shot dead. From this beginning, the story of Edgar J. Watson is told through the recollections of his daughter and neighbors, and by reports from magazines, letters, and other historical papers. This is a study rich in history, social studies, ecology, and nature of the The Ten Thousand Islands area of southwestern Florida from 1890-1910. It was a haven for escapees and renegades, and poor treatment of Indians, blacks, and half-breeds was accepted and expected. When Watson arrived there in the 1890s, he was thought of as quiet and friendly. But an aura of danger grew with the stories told and retold about him. When it was alleged that he killed 57 people (including Belle Starr), the tales became folk legend. The setting and characters are fully drawn as Watson's menacing power grows steadily. Because ten characters tell and retell in dialect their versions of the Watson story, YAs will need to persevere with this demanding format. If they do, they will know the Florida era that ended when Mister Watson was killed. --Judy Sokoll, Fairfax County Public Library,
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
The book - as all have noted here - is told by other persons and has a curious Rashomon effect to it. One doesn't know who is telling the truth at what time or, in the end, if there is any "objective truth" to be found in the first place. But what came across as most striking to me about the book are the richly detailed descriptions of the turn-of-the-century part of southwest Florida known as the ten thousand islands. The landscape has an eerie character of its own, described by Matthiessen (a naturalist with many non-fiction works to his credit) with deft precision. An example:
"This sky in southern Florida is white with heat as if ash was falling from the sun. In the hot breeze, the spiky little palms stick up like clusters of black knives, and the fire ball coming up out of the palms sharpens their edges. With the sun up, the wind dies, and the redbirds and mockers fall dead quiet, and a parched heat settles in for the long day, just dry dry dry."
There's no plot to give away here. The title does that. What we have is a series of passages relating the history (again, from different perspectives) leading up to E. J. (or was it really E. A.?) Watson's shooting. What sort of man was Watson? Did he deserve to die? Who knows? But he's the sort of man around whom myths and legends are spun. Read and decide for yourself. I will admit that what I regard as the most revealing passage about him is the following:
"And so he gave me that quick wink, the kind of wink that made all our hopes and struggles in this world seem kind of silly, due to our sinful foolishness and greed. I bit my lip so as not to giggle, I pretended I never even seen it, because NOTHING MATTERED, according to that wink. It didn't MATTER that our mortal days were bloodsoaked, cruel, and empty, with nothing at the end but disease and darkness."
A page-turning, solid read, this, full of historical interest, if a bit long on "cracker" phraseology.
Watson was originally accepted by fellow pioneers, most of whom lived some distance away on Chokoloskee Island where Ed would occasionally visit to pick up goods at Smallwoods general store, which still exists today much as it was in 1910.
Bodies started turning up missing and/or dead, and it comes to be believed that Watson might have been the last man to see them alive. The locals, including some who had been friendly with Ed, decide to take matters into their own hands.
This book is an interesting character study of not only Watson, but of those who turned against him, with little or no evidence, and why. The reader is treated to some great insight as to how tough it must have been, during the first decade of the 20th century, for settlers to exist in such a dangerous environment.