By Joyce Sparrow, Authentic Florida guest book reviewer
Author Peter Matthiessen was not a Floridian or a Cracker or a snow bird, but he spent one third of his life researching and writing about Edgar J. Watson, a known Everglades gunslinger who was killed by a posse of 20 neighbors in 1910. Matthiessen recreated Watson’s life in four novels: Killing Mister Watson (1990); Lost Man’s River (1997); Bone by Bone (1999) and Shadow Country (2008) a winner of the National Book Award.
All four novels examine Mr. Watson’s dark and bloody life as the suspected killer of Belle Starr, who herself was a notorious outlaw. On the other side of the story is Mr. Watson as a ladies’ man and common law husband to five women and father to ten children.
Matthiessen’s Edgar J. Watson novels demand a time commitment from readers. It is similar to reading Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove where there is a cadence to the writing requiring the reader to slow down and enjoy the trail ride. There is also a hint of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, as a nonfiction novel, revealing a bit of truth with some fiction.
Shadow Country, at the time of publication, was promoted as a new rendering of the Watson legend. Book I is a fascinating 12 character, first-person narrative revealing the details leading up to Watson’s death. Readers are challenged by ambiguities to identify the most reliable narrator. That is the beauty of Matthiessen’s narrative: who is telling the real story—in a novel? Book II is the story of Lucius Watson’s quest to learn more about his father. Lucius earned his Ph.D. in his history and joined with his half brother Rob in the late 1920s to find answers about their father’s alleged murderous trail. Book III provides the backstory of the life and times of Edgar J. Watson.
Mathiessen was born in New York City and raised in Connecticut. Critics say his fascination with the Everglades began when he was a teenage in the 1940s and his father took him for boat ride along Florida’s Gulf coast.
Readers are well served to spend time with Mr. Watson. Not only does Matthiesen document Watson’s life in fiction, he also details life in the Everglades in the late 1880s: the heat, the mosquitoes, and the land grabs to establish Yankee tourist fishing villages. Through Matthiessen’s skill, readers feel temperatures rise not only on the land but among the personalities living in the swamps of the Everglades.
Joyce Sparrow writes “Florida Reads” the book review column for the Florida Library Association’s publication, Florida Libraries. She also publishes book reviews in Library Journal. Contact Joyce at ReadFlorida@gmail.com.
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