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Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
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A New Rendering of the Watson Legend

A-Shadow CountryPeter Matthiessen, who won the National Book Award for The Snow Leopard (1978), condenses his epic trilogy about true-life outlaw and sugar planter Edgar J. Watson: Killing Mister Watson (1990), Lost Man’s River (1997), and Bone by Bone (1999).

The Story: Edgar J. Watson (1855–1910) gained notoriety for shooting outlaw Belle Starr. But throughout his life, he was a lawless man who, in 1910, was gunned down by his neighbors in a collective act of self-defense. Book I, told by a dozen first-person narrators who both admired and feared him, offers unreliable memories of Watson’s early, ruthless days in Florida, as he settled the untamed swampland. In Book II, Watson’s favorite son Lucius searches for the truth about his father’s untimely end. Watson himself narrates Book III in a "memoir" that spans his childhood in South Carolina during the Civil War and covers the cause of his fearlessness, his estranged relationships, and the truth behind the legends. In depicting one man’s life from multiple angles, Matthiessen tells nothing less than the story of the American frontier.
Modern Library. 912 pages. $40. ISBN: 0679640193

St. Petersburg Times 5 of 5 Stars
"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." Colette Bancroft

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[Florida] is a place both beautiful and nightmarish, a wetland Garden of Eden brimming with birds and beasts and reptiles, offering itself to the men who come and start to carve it up into cane fields and shallow graves. … It is a tour de force and weaves a provocative if contradictory history by the end of what Matthiessen frames here as Book One." Ron Carlson

Miami Herald 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Slimmed down, Shadow Country probably works better than the original trilogy. Anyone wanting an explanation for what happened to Florida can now find it in a single novel, a great American novel." Fred Grimm

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Shadow Country is a magnum opus. … I also must add that a story that is rehashed and reexamined for 900 pages does get to feel interminable." Barbara Lloyd McMichael

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"With its historical and legendary uncertainties, this first book is a deeper South Absalom, Absalom!, possibly even an homage. … By reducing his Watson materials to one volume, Matthiessen has sacrificed qualities that gave those novels their powerful reinforcing illusions of authenticity and artlessness." Tom LeClair

Critical Summary

Critics described the three stand-alone Watson novels as magnificent epics, and Shadow Country, a seamless weaving and slimming down of these works, as a masterpiece. As in all his writing, Matthiessen offers a beautiful homage to place—the raw, untamed Everglades of the late 19th century—while trying to understand the costs that accompanied the conquering of the frontier. All the stand-alone sections have their strengths as they explore the motivations behind Watson’s death. Despite its heft, most reviewers described Shadow Country as a surprisingly fast read. Only the reviewer from the New York Times Book Review expressed complaints about what felt like one big literary contrivance. But the rest agreed: "This mighty book is the potent distillation of a tale that was brilliantly told to begin with" (St. Petersburg Times).