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Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen

Shadow Country (2008)

by Peter Matthiessen

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Shadow country relates the legend of Edgar J. Watson, a sugar planter and outlaw living on the wild Florida frontier of the thousand islands around the turn of the last century. With its nearly nine hundred pages it is a vast work, with the evolution of a multitude of characters, different settings along the wild rim of the Everglades and a timespan stretching from the Civil War up to thirties of the last century.

The book opens with the killing, or rather the execution of Planter E.J Watson by his neighbors, most of them hardworking and peaceful farmers and fishers, minding their own business. Why they come to kill him, the incidents leading up to Watson’s final moment and the aftermath and repercussions are developed in the three parts, that make up the nearly 900 pages of this hunk of a book. Each part tells the same story, albeit from a different point of view and time frame, in order to give the reader a kaleidoscopic view on the whole drama.

In the first one we get the story in a multitude of short recollections by the people who knew Watson: short interviews, remembrances, eye witnesses accounts, hear-say, gossip and so on, leaving a lot of questions unanswered and opinions contradicting each other.
The second part consists of the investigation by his son Lucius, trying to find out who were the instigators of the execution. This part develops also more the consequences and the aftermath of the crime up until the second war.

The last part is the story of his life by Watson himself. It delves deeper into the past of Watson, starting in the terrible last months of the Civil War, explaining why he became the man everybody feared and why he did what according to him, he HAD to do. The Outlaw’s take on the story, fills in a lot of blanks and gives an (one-sided) explanation of the occurrences that lead to Watson’s dead.
Shadow country, written in 1978, is in fact a retake, a director’s cut so to say, of three of Matthiessen’s earlier books on the same subject : “Killing Mister Watson”, “Lost Man River” and “Bone by Bone”. The original manuscript started in 1978, totaled 1500 pages and his editor had insisted cutting the large tome in three parts.

The Watson legend was Mathiessen’s obsession. Set against a background of civil war, imperialism, rape of the land and life in the name of Industrial progress and abject and tragic racism, Watson’s story epitomizes for the writer all that is wrong in the world.

“…(the) book draws together in one work the themes that have absorbed me all my life – the pollution of land, air and water that is inevitable in the blind obliteration of the wilderness and its wild creatures and also the injustice to the poor of our own species, especially the indigenous peoples and the inheritors of slavery left behind by the cruel hypocrisy of what those in power represent as progress and democracy”.

It is hard book indeed. Violence prevails throughout the pages. Watson is who he is, partly, because he responds in his own way, to what surrounds him growing up: Child abuse and neglect, awful racism all around him, lawlessness, social injustice, family feuds, debilitating poverty, lack of education and all that in a Wilderness of Plenty.
Luckily Matthiessen gives us break from time to time with the lingo of the frontier people and sometimes hilarious expressions which made me laugh aloud.

A good read ! ( )
3 vote Macumbeira | Jul 27, 2015 |
813.54 M443 at RMIT
Started only
  Egaro | Aug 21, 2014 |
I read Killing Mr Watson when it was published in the early 1990s, but did not realize then how much William Faulkner's Snopes Trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, The Mansion) was a major model. There are a number of similarities between the works. First and foremost is the use of multiple first-person narrators speaking in dialect. Dialect in narration is notorious for slowing the reader down, since, usually one has to spend more time sounding out each phoneme. That's not the case here. And I've yet to figure out how Mathiessen does it. The themes early on are the numinous landscape, which is exquisitely rendered, man's thoughtless depredations upon it, and race.
  William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
about florida everglades
  greegood | Apr 16, 2014 |
I am in blood
Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

- Macbeth, 3.4.157-9.

Fabliau of Florida
Barque of phosphor
On the palmy beach,

Move outward into heaven,
Into the alabasters
And night blues.

Foam and cloud are one.
Sultry moon-monsters
Are dissolving.

Fill your black hull
With white moonlight.

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

- Wallace Stevens

Peter Matthiessen, best-known for [The Snow Leopard], has written a blood-boiling, soul-searching novel in Shadow Country, which won the American National Book Award in 2008. Although first published as three separate novels, Matthiessen always intended the story to be a single edifice, and that it is. He was also dissatisfied with the middle book, saying it reminded him “not agreeably of the long belly of a dachshund, slung woefully between its upright sturdy legs.” Although in my opinion still the weakest part of the novel, the middle section still works well. More on that later, however. Let me first describe the story, which is based on real events. Matthiessen’s novel is a character-study of E.J. Watson, an infamous Florida sugarcane planter of the early twentieth century, who after many unsavoury incidents, was gunned down by his Chokoloskee neighbours under strange circumstances. Matthiessen has weaved a magnificent story from the disparate facts in the case of Watson, creating an engaging, revealing story about… well, about everything from greed, desperation, and insanity, to love, hope, and redemption.

The first part of the book consists of numerous voices relating Watson’s story from every conceivable angle. Each character who narrates the story reveals something about Watson, the times, and themselves as Matthiessen creates a brilliant collage of voices from the past. This first part is beautifully controlled, and Matthiessen is astoundingly good at capturing the diversity of characters. The suspicions of the people concerning Watson are carefully ratcheted up, until the final crescendo on a fateful day in 1910. Matthiessen is also great at describing the Florida coast, its lonely keys and hidden waterways. As one would expect, there is a great deal on the natural environment and its creatures. This creates an atmosphere of authenticity and verisimilitude that is rare in modern fiction. Matthiessen already uses this section to address his main themes, especially those of guilt, racism, and environmentalism.

The second part focusses on Watson’s son, Lucius, and his attempt to clear his father’s name. Lucius is an engaging character, yet also deeply flawed. He loves his father and the Florida coast, but he lacks the strength of conviction, and often allows events to spiral out of control, a problem which is exacerbated by his drinking. This section extends the story into the 1930s, with Lucius trying to find out as much about his father as possible. Matthiessen uses this premise to flesh out the story, adding lots of details to extant story from the first part. This part is very concerned with how families develop and become estranged, how they hide things from each and learn to cope with this history. I thought this part was also excellent, but Lucius is a bit too weak to carry the story as well as the multi-voice approach.

Matthiessen confronts this problem head-on in the third and final part, which is narrated by Watson himself. It spans the time from his birth to his death, and is absolutely brilliant. Engrossing, engrossing, I tell you, with Watson himself as a larger-than-life frontiersman, desperado and rounded human being providing the impetus to a story of sound and fury. Yet it signifies much, despite Watson’s ignominious end. Watson is one of the most realised characters that I have ever encountered in a novel. He is at times funny, harsh, evil, good, greedy, compassionate… the adjectives pile up without quite catching the living, breathing Watson. I loved this section the most; it was the best-written, best-conceived part of the novel, and convinced me totally.

As anyone can see, I am very excited by, and enamoured of, Matthiessen’s masterpiece. This is the stuff of writer’s envy, but also of inspiration. (The claim that it is too long is merely silliness; I was left wanting more). I will certainly be reading it again, and will be looking out for Matthiessen’s other books. ( )
9 vote dmsteyn | Jan 29, 2013 |
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To sum it up in a few words is impossible since its interest lies in the ambition of storytelling and inevitability of story.
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Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without so much a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundre-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before. -- Jacob Riis
With love to my brother Carey and my ever dear Maria
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Sea birds are aloft again, a tattered few.
Plume hunters shoot early in the breeding season when egret plumes are coming out real good. When them nestlings get pinfeathered, and squawking loud cause they are always hungry, them parent birds lose the little sense God give 'em. They are going to come in to tend their young no matter what, and a man using one of them Flobert rifles that don't snap no louder than a twig can stand there under the trees in a big rookery and pick them birds off as fast as he can reload. . . . A broke-up rookery, that ain't a picture you want to think about too much. The pile of carcasses left behind when you strip the plumes and move on to the next place is just pitiful, and it's a piss-poor way to harvest, cause there ain't no adults left to feed them young and protect 'em from the sun and rain. let alone the crows and buzzards that come sailing and flopping in, tear 'em to pieces. A real big rookery like that one the Frenchman worked up on Tampa Bay had four-five hundred acres of black mangrove, maybe ten nests to a tree. Might take you three-four years to clean it out but after that them birds are gone for good. . . . It's the dead silence after all the shooting that comes back today, though I never stuck around to hear it; I kind of remember it when I am dreaming. Them ghostly trees on dead white guano ground, the sun and silence and dry stink, the squawking and flopping of their wings, and varmints hurrying in without no sound, coons, rats, and possums, biting and biting, and the ants flowing up all them white trees in their dark ribbonds to eat at the scrawny things that's backed up to the edge of the nest, gullets pushing and mouths open wide for the food and water that ain't never going to come. Luckiest ones will perish before something finds 'em, cause they's so many young that the carrion birds just can't keep up. Damn vultures set hunched up on them dead limbs so stuffed and stupid they can't hardly fly.

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 081298062X, Paperback)


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

From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:09 -0400)

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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.… (more)

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