Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen. New York: Modern Library, 2008.
Summary: A condensation of the Watson trilogy, giving three different renderings of the life and death of Edgar J. Watson, a planter, and notorious alleged murderer, of the Ten Thousand Islands area of southwest Florida.
A few basic facts to begin with about this National Book Award (2008) winning novel. At 892 pages it is actually a condensation of an earlier trilogy of books on the Edgar Watson legend, cutting roughly a third of the material! Although fiction, the story is based on a historical figure who has something of a legendary status on southwest Florida, Edgar J. Watson.
Watson grew up in Edgefield, South Carolina, the son of an abusive Civil War veteran. Just when it appears that he is getting himself established, he gets mixed up in the death of a relative and begins a life of looking over his shoulder. He flees to Fort White, marries the true love of his life, who he loses in the birth of their first child who he only called “Sonborn” for years. Eventually he has to flee to the Indian territories, marries again, gets mixed up in the death of Belle Starr, does time in prison, and escapes and returns to Florida and kills a man in self-defense. He then heads to southwest Florida and sets up a new life on a sugar cane plantation in the Ten Thousand Islands area on the southwest Florida coast, near Chokoloskee, Florida, settled by the Smallwood family, who had a store there. He brings his second wife there until her health fails and she goes to Ft. Myers to stay with her daughter and son-in-law. He flees when former workers on his plantation and squatters on land he acquired turn up dead. He returns to Fort White, marries for a third time and gets mixed up in the murders of two men. After being acquitted, he returns to his plantation (Chatham Bend), which becomes the refuge of several criminals including the actual murderer, Les Cox, of the two men in Fort White (and several others). The climax occurs when a mass murder occurs at Chatham Bend prior to a hurricane while Watson is reputedly absent. Watson claims it is Les Cox who committed the murders, is reluctantly permitted to return to bring Cox back dead or alive, and when he returns without Cox, and appears to be raising his shotgun, is killed in a hail of gunfire.
That is the outline of the life of the real Edgar Watson. The novel consists of three books, during which the death of Watson is described four times. The first book consists of recollections of different people of the Chokoloskee area of the life and death of Watson. The second is the effort of his youngest son, Lucius, a budding historian, to find out first, who killed his father, and then, what kind of man it was they killed. The third book is in the voice of Watson himself, rendering the most complete account of his life.
What each of the accounts agree upon is that Watson was a kind of “force of nature” and a leader of men for better or worse. He was a womanizer who never apologized for satisfying his sexual drive, nor for the numerous children he begot. He drank far too much. Was he the notorious murderer the townspeople of Chokoloskee feared and ultimately did away with? Was he actually the bold entrepreneur who Lucius for some time believed was innocent of the evil others attributed to him. Was he the complicated individual who had killed some, was innocent of the murders of others who kept trying to make his way only to be brought down by misfortune.
Two other mysteries swirl around the book, and the legends surrounding Watson. Who fired the first and fatal kill shot. Was it the black man, Henry Short, and did the rest fire to cover it so that Henry would not be lynched? And what really happened to Les Cox, the pathological murderer who killed at least seven at Chatham Bend?
As you can tell, this is a dark story. What makes this long book a fascinating read is the exploration of this singular character over which people continue to argue. My own conclusion is that somehow, even the worst of human beings bear some trace of the image of God, twisted and obscured as it may be. It is also a story of the complicated relationships between blacks, whites, and native peoples. Lastly, in the backdrop is the ecological destruction of the natural habitat as forest are cleared, plume birds eradicated, clam populations destroyed and natural features destroyed by canals and road construction.
In addition to the fascinating exploration of this character and his place, what holds one’s interest through such a large book is the author’s technique of breaking a long story into bite-sized narratives in differing voices that keep you reading from one to the next until you decide (at least I did) to not put the book down until I finished it. For those contemplating whether this is the long book in which to lose yourself, don’t choose this if you are looking for a “feel good” book. This one will intrigue you, and make you think about the human condition in ways similar to Heart of Darkness in the shadow country of the Florida everglades.