Shadow Country

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Overview

2008 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER

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...

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Overview

2008 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER

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."

Praise for Shadow Country
Shadow Country is altogether gripping, shocking, and brilliantly told, not just a tour de force in its stylistic range, but a great American novel, as powerful a reading experience as nearly any in our literature. This magnificent, sad masterpiece about race, history, and defeated dreams can easily stand comparison with Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. Little wonder, too, that parts of the story of E.J. Watson call up comparisons with Dostoevsky, Conrad, and, inevitably, Faulkner. In every way, Shadow Country is a bravura performance, at once history, fiction, and myth–as well as the capstone to the career of one of the most admired and admirable writers of our time.” — The New York Review of Books

“Magnificent and capacious…. I'll just say right here that the book took my sleeve and like the ancient mariner would not let go. Matthiessen has made his three-part saga into a new thing…. Finally now we have these books welded like a bell, and with Watson's song the last sound, all the elements fuse and resonate….a breathtaking saga.”The Los Angeles Times

Gorgeously written and unfailingly compelling, Shadow Country is the exhilarating masterwork of [Matthiessen’s] career, every bit as ambitious as Moby Dick.” — National Geographic Adventure magazine

“Peter Mattiessen consolidates his epic masterpiece of Florida — and crafts something even better…[He] deserves credit for decades of meticulous research and obsessive details and soaring prose that converted the Watson legend into critically acclaimed literature….Anyone wanting an explanation for what happened to Florida can now find it in a single novel, a great American novel.” — Miami Herald

“Matthiessen is writing about one man's life in Shadow Country, but he is also writing about the life of the nation over the course of half a century. Watson's story is essentially the story of the American frontier, of the conquering of wild lands and people, and of what such empires cost….Even among a body of work as magnificent as Matthiessen's, this is his great book.” — St. Petersburg Times

Shadow Country is a magnum opus. Matthiessen is meticulous in creating characters, lyrical in describing landscapes, and resolute in dissecting the values and costs that accompanied the development of this nation.” —Seattle Times

“Shadow Country” is an ambitious, lasting, and meaningful work of literature that will not soon fade away. It is a testament to Mr. Matthiessen’s integrity as an artist that he felt compelled to return to the Watson material to produce this work and satisfy his original vision….a multifaceted work that can be read variously or simultaneously as a psychological novel, a historical novel, a morality tale, a political allegory, or a mystery. — East Hampton Star

“Matthiessen’s Watson trilogy is a touchstone of modern American literature…this reworking…is remarkable….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 confincingly portrayed.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review, Pick of the Week
“Matthiessen has reinvigorated and rejoined the trilogy’s novels…a mosaic about the life and lynch-mob death of a turn-of-the century Florida Everglades sugar planter and serial killer named E. J. Watson — into the 900-plus-page Shadow Country. This is no mere repackaging: Four hundred pages were cut from the novels, previous background characters now tromp to the foreground, and the books’ rangy, Faulknerian essence is rendered more digestible. Deliciously digestible, that is; this is a thick porterhouse of a novel.” — Men’s Journal
"The fiction of Peter Matthiessen is the reason a lot of people in my generation decided to be writers. No doubt about it. SHADOW COUNTRY lives up to anyone's highest expectations for great writing." — Richard Ford
"Peter Matthiessen is a brilliantly gifted and ambitious writer, an inspired anatomist of the American mythos. His storytelling skills are prodigious and his rapport with his subject is remarkable." — Joyce Carol Oates
"Peter Matthiessen's work, both in fiction and non-fiction, has become a unique achievement in his own generation and in American literature as a whole. Everything that he has written has been conveyed in his own clear, deeply informed, elegant and powerful prose. The Watson saga-in-the-round, to which he has devoted nearly thirty years, is his crowning achievement. SHADOW COUNTRY, his distillation of the earlier trilogy, is his transmutation of it to represent his original vision. It is the quintessence of his lifelong concerns, and a great legacy." — W.S. Merwin

Winner of the 2008 National Book Award

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

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 heinvestigates 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.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The Barnes & Noble Review
The Transcendentalists were right about one thing: Nature, as we commonly think of it, does not exist outside the human realm, but within us. "It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves," Thoreau wrote in his journal, sounding, as ever, like he were talking himself out of leaving home. "It is the bog in our brains and bowels...that inspires that dream. I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess of Concord, i.e. than I import to it."

Humans have been busy in that import business ever since we began painting and telling stories -- stuffing the natural world with myths that have our fingerprints all over them. In his landmark survey, Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama showed how the Arcadian dream -- of living in harmony with a pastoral natural landscape -- has been one of our pervasive ideals. It stretches across cultures and time, appearing throughout visual art. We see it domesticated on suburban lawns and in national parks.

That fantasy had a darker counterpoint, however: it was a landscape of density and death. A place that doesn't redeem but dissolves toward entropy and the baser needs of fetid reproduction. The jungles of Conrad's Heart of Darkness were one such place. So are the gator-filled mangrove swamps and humid sawgrass of the Florida Everglades in Peter Matthiessen's astonishing Watson Trilogy, which, as it turns out, were never intended to be three novels, but one.

Matthiessen spent five or six years returning to that project to its original vision. It has now been republished by Modern Library as one long novel, Shadow Country, an appropriate title for an epic meditation on a landscape defined by rape, rupture, and the intermingling of races that were enlisted -- forcibly, or by the equally cruel leverage of their destitution -- to clear, tame, and make landscapes from Oklahoma to the Deep South worth something; or if that failed, to leave.

At 900 pages, Shadow Country is an imposing piece of reading, but the Novel -- the capital N feels appropriate here -- never lacks for momentum, let alone a grand character. E. J. Watson, its blond, brutal, hardworking, hubristic hero, is a close cousin to Thomas Sutpen, the volcanic center of William Faulkner's masterpiece Absalom! Absalom! Like Sutpen, Watson comes to a land that is not his own, haunted by his past -- in this case it's a murder -- and tries to impose a grand design that the land and the racial politics required to maintain it resist. Like Sutpen, Watson also spawns sons who try and fail to deal with their father's complicated, poisonous legacy. The only difference is that Watson is based on a real person whose life and death are confirmed by Florida history.

Edgar J. Watson was the son of a well-known South Carolina family who reportedly married five women and fathered ten children. Watson is shot down in cold blood in the book's opening scene by a posse of his neighbors, shortly after pulling his boat ashore one night. It's a riveting scene that ends with a horrendous image of a woman crawling under her house, "dragging her brood into the chicken slime and darkness."

The novel then cycles back to tell Watson's story in the voices of a dozen men and women who knew him (and watched him -- or helped him -- get shot) in riffs that feel as natural as if they were told across a porch as darkness falls. It's a bravura performance of serial impersonations that instantly keys us in to the racial tensions that simmered in that part of the world around the turn of the 20th century. We hear from Richard Hardin, an Indian who looks white; a mulatto named Henry Short and another man named Bill House, both of whom worked for a Frenchman who turned up in those parts in search of rare birds.

Together, with others, they tell how Watson appeared one day, clearly an outlaw of some sort. Florida's Ten Thousand Islands were full of people on the lam in those days -- "knife-mouthed piney-woods crackers," as one man describes them, "hollow-eyed under wool hats and them bony-cheeked tall women with lank black hair like horse mane." Watson possessed their toughness but also had grander ambitions than most -- and, crucially, had a way of getting people to do what he wanted. He bought up a piece of land no one had successfully farmed and began growing cane on it in 1894; he later brought his family along, only to flee when one too many murders occurred on his plantation.

The chorus of voices who relay this history to us sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Here is a place distrustful of outsiders, where people solved disagreements and even greetings with a gun and the instinct to steal and take from the land -- to deplete it, or import the outside world into it -- was looked down upon, vanquished with a tough-minded irony. One character remembers how, in the 1880s, travelers going down the rivers would see the Mikasuki Indians peering through the sawgrass: "Give you a funny feeling," the man says, "Made you think the Earth was watching, too." A preacher brought "the Lord to Everglade back in 1888 and took Him away again when he departed." Yachts begin coming down and mooring nearby and the people pull out the depth stakes. Watson, who is farming a piece of land said to be haunted, is expelled not once but twice.

The metaphors that Matthiessen's characters use reflect people living within the orienting sphere of nature -- people for whom the mere notion of an idea of an abstract Nature would be a Yankee joke. A woman is "small and flirty as a bird"; listening to you, a man says, Watson would "blink just once, real slow, like an old chewing turtle"; on the night Watson is shot, a nervous man is "buzzing with green flies in the heat." As the book progresses and outsiders begin entering the picture and try to parse Watson's legend -- like his son Lucius, a Ph.D. doing research on the South -- the novel's language evolves away from this natural ecology toward crisper, denatured cadences. It is surveying language; it is academic language; it is an outsider's language.

Stitching the three novels back together must have been nearly as mammoth a task as writing them to begin with. Matthiessen has bridged the gap as best as one can imagine, sawing a significant amount of historical information out of the section originally published as "Lost Man's River," a decision that draws his characters' voices to the fore and unfortunately reveals the adjectival paucity of Watson's first-person narration, which kicks in during Book Three and carries Shadow Country toward its climax. We all live in the gap between how we are perceived and the way we see ourselves. Somehow, though, Watson's voice doesn't sound right. The events leading up to this point prepare you for a man who would cuss language into a sprung poetry, like Peter Carey's Ned Kelly. Instead Watson sounds disappointingly like a businessman.

In the end, there is a sad truth to this planing down toward the literal in Shadow Country. Florida was becoming a business. As Matthiessen reminds the reader, Napoleon Broward was the new governor, "and his plan to conquer the Everglades for the future of Florida agriculture" got under way in 1906. What Watson was doing to the landscape, and to the people who worked for him, was about to happen on a much larger scale. It's something even he regrets. Late in the novel, Watson recalls seeing some Yankee men and their Indian guides dragging a 2,000-pound manatee in a dugout down the Shark River in a pine box. "What they wanted with that huge dismal creature and what became of it I never learned," he says. The image says volumes. The wildness of that world was about to be tamed -- or perhaps invented, as if that were possible -- and no one knew the violence that would likely require quite like E. J. Watson. --John Freeman

John Freeman's work has appeared in The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal and on NPR. He is completing a book on the tyranny of email for Scribner.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812980622
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/2/2008
  • Series: Modern Library Paperbacks Series
  • Pages: 912
  • Sales rank: 85,583
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Matthiessen has written eight novels, including At Play in the Fields of the Lord (nominated for the National Book Award) and Far Tortuga, and also a book of short stories, On the River Styx. His parallel career as a naturalist and environmental activist has produced numerous acclaimed works of nonfiction, most of them serialized in The New Yorker; these include The Tree Where Man Was Born (another National Book Award nominee) and The Snow Leopard (a National Book Award winner). He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1974.

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Read an Excerpt

ERSKINE THOMPSON

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. Thatch lean-tos and a skiff and pot and rifle, maybe a jug of homemade lightning for fighting off the skeeters in the evening. Had earth in a tub, made their fire in the skiff, had coffee going morning, noon, and night.

Man on the run who used the name Will Raymond was camped with a woman and her daughter in a palmetta shack on that big bend in Chatham River, living along on grits and mullet, taking some gator hides and egret plumes, selling bad moonshine to the Injuns. We seen plenty like Will Raymond in the Islands, knife-mouthed piney-woods crackers, hollow-eyed under wool hats, and them bony-cheeked tall women with lank black hair like horse mane. Go crazy every little while, shoot some feller through the heart. Will done that more’n once in other parts, we heard, and got that habit. Seems the law wanted him bad—dead or alive, as you might say. When deputies come a-hunting him out of Key West, Will said nosir, he’d be damned if he’d go peaceable, and he whistled a bullet past their heads to prove it, but he was peaceable as the law allows by the time the smoke cleared. The law invited the Widder Raymond to accompany his mangy carcass on a free boat ride to Key West, and she said, “Thankee, boys, I don’t mind if I do.”

Old Man Richard Harden, then the Frenchman, was on Chatham Bend before him, and the Injuns before that; biggest Injun mound south of Chokoloskee Island. Most of the Bend was overgrowed cause none of ’em weren’t farmers, and Mister Watson would cuss Will Raymond every time we went downriver, saying how pitiful it was to see that good ground going to waste. One day Mister Watson went ashore, made an offer for the quit-claim, and Raymond come out with a old musket, run him off. Fortnight later, a posse come a hundred mile north from Key West and killed that pesky feller, and next thing you know, Ed Watson tracked the widder down and bought the quit-claim, two hundred fifty dollars. That was a pile of cash in them days, but what he got was forty acres of good soil, protected on three sides by mangrove tangle: anybody who come huntin E. J. Watson would have to come straight at him, off the river.

E. J. Watson had grand plans, about the only feller down there as ever did. Used to talk about dredging out the mouth of Chatham River, make a harbor for that wild southwest coast. Meantime, he sunk buttonwood posts to frame up a new cabin, had wood shutters and canvas flaps on the front windows, brought in a woodstove and a kerosene lamp and a galvanized tub for anyone might care to bath. We ate good, too, fish and wild meat, sowbelly and grits, had a big iron skillet and made johnnycakes: put some lard to his good flour, cooked ’em up dry. I remembered them big johnnycakes all my whole life.

Will Raymond’s shack weren’t fit for hogs, Mister Watson said, had to patch it up before he put his hogs in it. We had two cows, and chickens, too, but that man had a real feel for hogs. He loved hogs and hogs loved him, come to his call from all over the Bend, I can hear him calling down them river evenings to this day. Brought ’em in at night cause of the panthers, fed ’em garden trash and table slops and such so they wouldn’t get no fishy taste like them old razorbacks at Hardens that fed on crabs and lowlife when the tide was out. Kept a old roan horse to pull his plow, break that hard shell ground, and sometimes he’d ride around his farm like it was his old family plantation back in South Carolina.

Mister Watson experimented with all kinds of vegetables and tobacco. Only victuals we traded for was salt and coffee: bought hard green coffee beans, wrapped ’em in burlap. hammered ’em to powder with a mallet. Made our own grits and sugar and cane spirits—what we called white lightning. Seasons when vegetables done poor, we’d pole inland up the creeks and out across the Glades to the piney ridges, get Injun greens and coontie root for starch and flour, cut some cabbage-palm tops in the hammocks. Worked his crew like niggers and worked like a nigger alongside of us. Brung in regular niggers from Fort Myers, and they worked hard, too—that man knew how to get work from his help! Them boys was scared to death of him, he could be rough. But they sure liked to listen to his stories, least when he weren’t drinking. Told ’em nigger jokes that set ’em giggling for hours—nerves, maybe. I never did get them fool jokes. Me’n niggers just don’t think the same.

Ed Watson was the first man since the Injuns to hack down all that thorn on Chatham Bend. Dug out palmetta roots thick as his leg, raked the shell out of that black soil and made a farm. Grew all kinds of vegetables, grew cane for syrup, and tomatoes and then alligator pears. Chok folks hooted when he tried seed potatoes, but Mister Watson shipped them things for three-four years and almost made ’em pay, and never failed to raise a few for our own table.

We got good money for our produce but too much spoiled before it reached Key West, so pretty quick, we give up on common vegetables and stuck to sugarcane. Next he figured that making cane syrup right there on the Bend made a lot more sense than shipping heavy stalks, because syrup could be stored till he got his price. First planter in south Florida to let his cane tassel before harvest so the syrup would boil down stronger without sugaring. Burned off his field before harvest, too, figuring the work would go much faster once the leaves and cane tops was burned away: nothing but clean stalks to deal with, not much sugar lost, and a smaller crew. And he learned not to wait too long: he’s the one discovered that cane sugar don’t extract good from the stalks even a few days after the burn.

Locally we sold every jar of syrup we produced so we invested in a bigger schooner that he called the Gladiator, packed our syrup in screw-top gallon cans, six to the case, shipped ’em to Port Tampa and Key West. Island Pride! Our brand grew to be famous. Them fellers at Half Way Creek and Turner River made good syrup but our Island Pride had left ’em in the dust.

All this while we shot gators and egrets when they was handy. Up them inland creeks past Alligator Bay, white egrets was thick, pink curlew, too, and we never failed to take a deer for venison, sometimes a turkey. Trapped coons and otters, shot a bear or panther every little while. Mister Watson was a deadeye shot. I could shoot pretty good, too, but the only man in southwest Florida could shoot as quick and clean as E. J. Watson was Nigger Short.

When D. D. House moved his cane plantation from Half Way Creek down to a big hammock north of Chatham Bend, he took Short with him. Sundays, that boy might visit with Bill House at Possum Key or go to Hardens. Henry and me got on all right, I never held nothin against him, but them damn Hardens let that nigger eat right at their table.

Besides me and Mister Watson, the only man hunting plume birds in our section was the Frenchman. One day we seen Chevelier’s skiff come out Sim’s Creek that’s back of Gopher Key. Sometimes that old man had Injuns with him, and this day I seen a dugout slide out of sight into the greenery.

Mister Watson never paid them Injuns no attention, only the skiff; he made me a sign to ship my oars, drift quiet. When Chevelier lifted his straw hat to mop his head, he shot it right out of his hand, just spun it away into the water. That old man yelped and grabbed his oars and skedaddled like a duck into the mangroves. “Stay off my territory!” shouts Watson. Picking up the floating hat with that new hole in it, he was grinning, kind of sheepish. Never a whisper from the mangroves and nothing to be seen but them red stilt roots, water glitter, and green air. “You’ll find your hat at Chatham Bend!” he yells.

I told Mister Watson how Chevelier was collecting rare birds for museums, used small-gauge bird shot so as not to spoil the skins. The Frenchman had all kinds of books, knew all about Injuns, spoke some of their lingo; he had wild men visiting at Possum Key that would never go nowhere near Chokoloskee Bay. Traded their hides and furs through Richard Harden, who claimed to be Choctaw or some such, though nobody never paid that no attention. The Frenchman was always close to Hardens, and probably it was Old Man Richard who brought them Injuns to him in the first place.

All the while I was talking, Mister Watson watched me. That feller would look at you dead on for a long minute, then blink just once, real slow, like a chewing turtle, keeping his eyes closed for a moment as if resting ’em up from such a dretful sight. That’s how I first noticed his fire color, that dark red hair the color of old embers or dried blood, and the ruddy skin and sunburned whiskers with a little gold to ’em, like he glowed inside. Then them blue eyes fixed me again, out of the shadow of that black felt hat. Only hat in the Ten Thousand Islands, I imagine, that had a label into it from Fort Smith, Arkansas. I took to whistling.

“What’s he up to over yonder, then?” Mister Watson interrupts me. I told him about that Injun mound hid away on Gopher Key and the white shell lining the canal that come in there from the Gulf. My opinion, Chevelier was hunting Calusa treasure.

On the way home, he was quiet. Finally he said he wouldn’t mind having him a chat with a educated man like Jean Chevelier—Che-vell-yay, he called him, stead of Shovel-leer, the way us local fellers said it—and he reckoned he’d picked a piss-poor way to get acquainted. He was right. That old Frenchman had some sand or he wouldn’t have made it all alone here in the Islands. This hat business weren’t over by a long shot.

We hung that felt hat on a peg when we got home but the Frenchman never come for it. After that day, we had them plume birds to ourselves.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 90 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2009

    Matthiessen is Rembrandt with a typewriter

    Those who read literature for the Art will be emotionally swept away. The writing is absolutely biblical in its proportions, rhythm and voice. The characters live. The greatest literary masterpiece of the 20th Century.

    Hillard Fried, Esq.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 25, 2010

    Book of the Decade

    Have to disagree with faultfinders. I loved this book. Couldn't wait to get back to it every night. An epic tale, combining the comedy of human foibles with almost inevitably unavoidable consequences that approach the tragic. We hear the story of one family, one character in particular, and multiple events, from the perspective of several voices, thus "the truth" keeps slipping and sliding as we are confronted with the eternal conflict between absolute beliefs and the relativity of truth when seen from someone else's eyes. The tone is pitch-perfect, the historical perspective surprisingly topical today; I regretted coming to the end.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 2, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen is a tour de force

    This long and enormously interesting book is a reworking of the three separate volumes-a National Book Award Winner-published from 1990 to 1999 into a single book. I haven't read the original trilogy but if Matthiessen's goal in the revision was to clarify and coalesce the three parts, I believe he's succeeded admirably.
    The story of the planter Edgar A. Watson takes place in the post-Civil War south into the turn of the 20th century. There is no mystery about the outcome since the denouement occurs in the opening pages of the book. But very quickly the true story, the parallel threads of the personal history of the central character as well as the growing pains of the region and the country leading up to the finale, is made clear. It's about one of the last frontiers in America told from many points of view and centering on a recurring theme of the movement of time and events as a river flows to the sea. In this telling the river is seen but so are the multiple strands and tributaries leading inexorably to the dramatic and tragic outcome.
    Reviewers have pointed to Matthiessen's "stylistic range" and this was to me one of the most striking accomplishments of the book. Book I (based on Killing Mister Watson) is told as a continuing series of first-person observations and recollections of characters directly and indirectly involved in Watson's life and death. Here the voices-in dialogue and recitation-are unique, individuated and convincing. In the second book (based on Lost Man's River) the voice is now a third-person narration from the point of view of Lucius Watson, Edgar Watson's middle, adult son (he had at least ten children) as he sets about the arduous and dangerous task of riddling out the reasons and the perpetrators of his father's death. Was it a murder, an execution, a lynching, or suicide? Lucius is the gentle and bookish son most loving and loved by his father. He is also a lover of nature and here begin descriptions of the natural world that are far ranging and at times truly poetic. These images stand in contrast to the depictions of the horrors wrought on nature by encroaching development and the often breathtaking racist brutality of the Jim Crow Era. Finally in Book III (from Bone by Bone) we are brought full circle to Edgar Watson's story in his own words and through his own thoughts and opinions.
    Edgar supplies the final pieces of the puzzle and yet he remains enigmatic to his last breath. The reader must draw his or her own conclusions as to his motivations. The character is so complex: simultaneously attractive and repellent, insightful and blind, nurturing and lethal, not to mention ingenious in his survival while hurtling, maddeningly toward self-destruction. If your standard for fiction is a story that stays with you long after the book is closed, Shadow Country should be on your list.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2009

    Shadow Country - Quick to Draw by Adam

    "Shadow Country" is a massive re-rendering of the Watson legend. It covers the span of twelve years of E.J. Watson's legend in the Ten Thousand Islands of the Everglades. The Watson legend fuses story, myth, and a little history into a bizarre profile that makes the plantation owner flourish in his past and>? end up bullet-ridden deep in the swamps. Reports and rumors claim "Bloody Watson" was the killer of outlaw Belle Starr way back in 1889. He carries a large family from his prosperous homeland of South Carolina: a handful of wives and about a dozen children.

    Matthiesen has combined his previous three tales ("Killing Mister Watson," "Lost Man's River," and "Bone by Bone") into "Shadow Country." The three part chronicles within "Shadow Country" take on a new perspective of the legend. However, the same outcome in Matthiessen's previous works is echoed; 33 slugs to the legend, myth, and body of a mysterious man. The three books begin with a third-person remembrance of E.J. Watson. Twelve characters relive the moments near the man. Watson's persona is in a gyre from the "Ill punch your nose off" written in his daughter's journal to a neighbor who recalls "Mister Watson had no interest in such hymns before his family come and he never had none after they was gone." Was Watson a family man or a fearless drunk? The ambiguity of the first book leaves many detailed memories, but more confusion in the construction of a mad-man.

    In Book II, his son discovers his father's code for revenge. The backing of his skill with a firearm and his sad upbringing are discovered by Lucius. Initially, revenge seems to be the driving force behind the son's search for answers. No stone is left unturned in this episode of paternal anger. The words alone are dry and coarse, but collectively create a massive book of notes that reveal the Watson family's darkest secrets. Either the overwhelming facts of his family, or the frequent encounters with the land mongering lawyer Dyer, leads Lucius to set ablaze all his work. The truths and mysteries are gone. The persistent questioning by Lucius reads like a psychology report: "But if that was his plan, why.Was that just a bad mistake, as people said? Papa didn't make mistakes like that, not when he had the whole trip north.to think his plan through."
    Book III is from E.J. Watson himself. An utter ending to the story told in truth. Speaking from the grave, unfortunately, makes the R.L. Stine to appear ahead his time. Matthiessen wants his character to have the fairy tale ending. The shadow surrounding his death is lifted. E.J, Bloody, Emperor Watson reflects on his mystery. The sugar plantation owner, the feared man, the exile, and the father lie to rest. While I wish there was a better way to end the story, Matthiessen allows first time readers of the legend to find the truth. The Everglades seem to swamp the story with an eerie sense, and an acrid tone.

    In all, "Shadow Country" is a good story. The legend of E.J. Watson will live on forever through these books. Matthiessen combines three styles of writing into one cohesive rendering. The middle section lacked abundant excitement and the ending fell short of believability. Despite the perplexing point of views, the final piece of the Watson Legend series was a success. Matthiessen and "Shadow Country" are deserving of the National Book Award for this tremendous tale of untraveled lands and quick-to draw pioneers.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 9, 2009

    An all-time favorite.

    While I can understand some readers preferring the original 3 separate novels, which I read when they were originally published, I found this "retelling" a tremendous achievement. The distilling of the source material into one-volume provided me with a better read this time around. I was captivated for the entire nearly 900 pages; the history of the area, the poetic prose which puts Matthiessen's love of natural history to great effect and especially being able to enjoy the change in points of view as each "book" flowed into the next. This joins my list of all-time favorites and I look forward to a re-read at some point of this American epic.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 29, 2011

    Highly recommended

    Beautifully written, facinating. I first heard of Mr. Watson while at the Smallwood store in Chokoloskee. Having read The Snow Leapord, a favorite, I had to pick up the book. Though lengthy, I couldn't put it down. Very informitave about Florida history as well as a facinating story of a Florida community.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 26, 2011

    Stunning

    Even a year later, I can't forget the characters, setting and intriguing plot from this book. I am a lifelong reader, and I think this is my favorite book. I've never been able to say such things before.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 30, 2009

    A Literary Monument of Florida

    Peter Matthiessen's great novel Shadow Country, the compressed och reshaped one-volume version of his three volumes in the Watson trilogy from the 1990s, has received so overwhelmingly positive praise for this final gigantic tome, that you may question the meaningfulness of adding something to the glorifying choir. Is this really a candidate to that much coveted title: The Great American Novel, that has been proposed by some reviewers?
    I think there will always be readers finishing this 890 pages long novel with a feeling that this is one of the most intensely fascinating och purposeful books they ever read. It is undoubtedly a stunning project Matthiessen has undertaken. What person has been the object of such a penetrating writing as the legendary planter and killer E.J Watson from Florida, the only one owing a house in the Everglades: first three long novels and now this great compression, hovering over the whole project? Matthiessen must have been obsessed by this almost mythical figure, whose dark and puzzling destiny he so thoroughly tries to clarify.
    Readers who like modern, intricate novels may perhaps not be so captivated by Matthiessen's slowly progressing narration with its often classical epic character, full of plain telling and illustrative details. This is Homeros in the prose epic line of our days, this is the historical books of the Old Testment, or the Icelandic sagas. It is very much written in the Tolstoyan tradition. In the main, Matthiessen seems to be a writer more interested in his characters, the principal ones as well as the smaller roles, and in the scheme of actions and events they are involved in, than he is in the literary language in itself, and its possibilities of artful creation. As an epic writer he is distinguished and exemplary, even though sometimes I found the story a bit too circumstantial and phlegmatic.
    But that is not the whole truth. The novel is divided into three books, and particularly the first one is enormously skilfully written: persons concerned with the life of Watson are telling their fragments of memories in their own popular or dialectic language. This is no doubt more in the Faulknerian tradition; even though Matthiessen is mostly far from Faulkner, his circling possession of Watson's enigmatical och always escaping fate has a lot in common with the driving force behind Faulkner's stories as well as Faulkner's literary technique.
    Matthiessen is especially of aesthetic delight in his suggestive and lyrical descriptions of nature and landscape. In this novel Florida and the Everglades get its literary monument in a prose epic, where man and nature, man in interplay with the forces of nature, are depicted in all colours between dazzling light and darkest tragedy. The magnificent end of the novel, where the telling is dissolved into short, thinly spread fragments of prose, concludes with the enigma of human life, as the story unmasks it, expressed in a poetical line: "this world is painted on a wild dark metal."
    Melville's Moby Dick, Dreiser's An American Tragedy, Updike's Rabbit Saga - well, it's probable among these outstanding works Matthiessen's Shadow Country will be classified. It is a great novel of Florida, but also, as a whole, of the U.S.A. with its turbulent history of blood and violence, lynching and destruction, and, finally, it is a lasting emblem of man's fate in an indescribably chaotic world.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 9, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Original,Masterful, an Unbelievable Achievement

    This book is a masterpiece, but don't trust this ordinary reader. Just look at the book jacket and read the quotes from such luminaries as Oates, Bellow, and Dillard. They are in awe of this book and so am I. You'd think that a book which begins with the story's climax--the murder of its protagonist--wouldn't be able to keep you interested for nearly 900 pages. In fact, I have lugged this book around everywhere and read it whenever I have a moment to spare. I have about a hundred pages left and truly do not want it to end. The author's note articulates Matthiessen's own epic journey as a writer, rewriting and editing this saga. I found reading it very helpful as it provided insight as to why a writer would rewrite and reframe a story that had already been succesfully published. This is, without a doubt, one of the most substantive and ambitious books I have ever read. It so chock full of narrative information and visual description that I find myself rereading chapters just to be able to absorb it all. The langague is beautiful which is also what keeps you hypnotized as a reader. The one characteristic I would point out--to you women out there--is that this book is really about men and the male psyche. Although there are many female characters, their characters are not really explored in great depth. You have to read Oates or Arnow for that. On the other hand, the shifting perspectives in the book are surprising and satisfying. In the first book, each chapter is told from a different chracter's point of view; the second book is told from the son's point of view; and, the third and most riveting book is related from the main character's point of view--highly original and engaging. This is the first book I have read by Matthiessen. He is truly a master storyteller.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 11, 2014

    Highly Recommended

    This is an intriguing one-book trilogy about a very interesting set of characters--particularly the protagonist, Ed Watson. The author has very effectively portrayed this man's life in the early frontier days of Florida and other parts, and has given it a realistic authenticity. One downside is that there is an awful lot of killing and mean fealings by many of the characters. However, it seems justified in the light of the wild nature of those early times. The strength of the portrayal of the main character, Ed Watson, makes this (long)book hard to put down even to the end.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2012

    A unique way of telling a story; multiple perspectives add layer

    A unique way of telling a story; multiple perspectives add layer upon layer to the story line

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  • Posted December 27, 2010

    loved it

    dense

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 9, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A Long but Rewarding Read

    Nearly nine-hundred pages long, Shadow Country is easily one of the longest books I've ever read. My first thought about Shadow Country was that it would be impossible for me to finish. I was wrong.

    Peter Matthiessen is a master storyteller and master of the English language. He is especially gifted (or practiced) in creating texture; his words grind in scenes of tension and soothe in scenes of peace. In addition, his cast of characters - ranging from the pure and innocent to schizophrenic - might be the best I've ever enjoyed.

    If you appreciate a good story and the English language at its best, read this book.

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  • Posted January 6, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Not my kind of Story

    I found this book hard to follow and after the first 100 pages I have put it down and archived it on my nook. Maybe at a later date I will attempt it again.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2009

    Dull!

    Nat'l Book Award? Might have been good reading had 600 pages been left out. Repetitive, disjointed, annoying!!! I kept reading, thinking it would suddenly get interesting...but that was not to be! I was angry with myself for finishing it. What a waste of paper/trees! One of the worst books I've ever suffered through.

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2009

    Excellent Read

    I enjoyed this book more than any that I have read in years. The characters will stay with you long after you've read the final words. I read the Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man's River, and Bone by Bone contain 400 more pages of this story. I plan to read them as soon as possbile.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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