Staff Review by Chuck Thomas: Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen

At nearly 900 pages, the Watson trilogy consists of a reworking of three books, but don’t be scared off — consider it a long-term relationship that you will thoroughly enjoy as you take a trip through the (fictionalized) history of the south Florida Gulf Coast and the real and imagined characters that inhabited the turn of the century era. Matthiessen’s prose is captivating as he weaves a tale of the Watson patriarch, Edgar “Jack” Watson, his various family assemblages, and his adventures as the wild and barely-inhabited gulf coast and its denizens are explored and exploited. The first segment – Book One – captures the wild coast from the ‘Glades’ to what would become Fort Myers from the late 1800’s and recounts Watson’s life and final breath succumbing to the guns of his neighbors who had gradually become to view him (truthfully or not) as a murderer and desperado who became feared and despised by many and possibly misunderstood by all. Book Two takes up the story after World War I as war veteran and historian Lucius Watson, E J’s son, attempts to write a true account of his father’s life and death and explores the fact and fantasy of Watson’s life and the development of the sugarcane plantations, relationships with former slaves and land developers, bankers and ner’ do wells all of which made Florida what we know today. The people and places are based on fact and Matthiessen’s uncanny insight for historical and environmental accuracy captures the folks, folklore, rivers, gulf and mangroves and inserts the reader into the schooner “Warrior’s” voyage of Watson’s life. The third book really takes off and the first two segments have set the stage for a re-imagining of Watson’s life, his ego, relationships with family and associates, farmhands and friends from E. J. Watson’s own perspective. Matthiessen assembles all the parts of the tale, and here we include the people, places, critters, swamps, bankers and thieves to create literary characters (the people and the places) so richly constructed that the reader really becomes immersed in the tale right up to the point of Watson’s tormented soul understanding and accepting that he is about to be murdered. If you like history, great writing and the perspectives of the opening of our country to “modernization” you will appreciate this work.

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