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Shadow Country

By Peter Matthiessen

Original and Current Publisher: Modern Library

Harold Augenbraum writes:

What becomes a legend most?

Edgar Watson, a story of the Everglades, one of the last frontiers around the turn of the twentieth century, of the man who supposedly killed the legendary Belle Starr—O, how these legends intertwine! until no one can be sure who lived and if they did how they died. After the age of exploration, the War Between the States, the Indian Wars, the division of baseball into the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues, but before paved roads, the Sherman Antitrust Act, the federal income tax, and women’s suffrage, Matthiessen gives us the frontier of swashbucklers in ketches and dories and plume merchants and croc hunters, and we can pretend that such things are past, but, hey, really, we’re still trying to civilize.

Peter Matthiessen took up Watson in three books in “The Watson Trilogy,”Killing Mister Watson (1990), Lost Man's River (1997) and Bone by Bone (1999)—and in 2008 turned them into one hang-together novel in three parts, simply titled Book I, Book II, and Book III—tight even at 892 pages, an undertaking worth undertaking. The number of voices are legion, a cracked portrait from a variety of viewpoints, as you learn about the individuals who killed Watson and why, their fears and anger. First you get the inexorable rushing toward Watson’s death at the guns of a dozen or so men. The there is his historian son’s investigation of his life and death, and then “Watson’s own words,” or at least Matthiessen’s imagining of them, his telling his own story, until again the moment of his death, and words push against words. You began with Watson’s death and then you end with it, bookends like tombstones. To sum it up in a few words is impossible since its interest lies in the ambition of storytelling and inevitability of story.

And my favorite line, “spoken” by one of the band who killed Mr. Watson: “Fallen angel, Mama Ida said, and it was true. Laying so still at our feet, Mister Watson looked like he had fell all the way from Heaven. You never seen a man so dead in all your life.” It’s the capitalization of the word “Heaven” that does it for me. In a way its themes reminded me of the fascination Africa and Asia held for English and American writers in the twentieth century, but set in the States themselves, a heart of darkness for the American region, an end of the matter.

Harold Augenbraum is Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, an editor and translator.


ISBN: 9780812980622

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Aleksandar Hemon for The Lazarus Project
  • Rachel Kushner for Telex from Cuba
  • Marilynne Robinson for Home
  • Salvatore Scibona for The End

Fiction Judges that Year:

Gail Godwin, Rebecca Goldstein, Elinor Lipman, Reginald McKnight, Jess Walter

The Year in Literature:

Peter Matthiessen won his first National Book Award in the short-lived Contemporary Thought category in 1979 for his nonfiction work, The Snow Leopard, and won the Award in the General Nonfiction (Paperback) category for the same book the following year. Almost thirty years later, in 2008, Matthiessen's fiction trilogy, Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man's River, and Bone by Bone, based on accounts of Florida planter Edgar J. Watson's death shortly after the Southwest Florida Hurricane of 1910, was reformatted into a single volume entitled Shadow Country. The book won the 2008 National Book Award for Fiction when Matthiessen was 81 years old.

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