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 !