A Short Review of Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen

I remember in college how a writing instructor directed me to rewrite a submission and change it from third to first person. He said, “You will learn something from this exercise.” He was correct, and since then, when I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve rewritten other pieces in the same way. I was amazed at how Matthiessen could so capture the distinct voices and minds of Lucius in Lost Man’s River and the voice and mind of Watson himself in Bone by Bone.

Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen is a National Book Award Winner. This author of at least eight novels has in my mind created a Florida fiction masterpiece and a fantastic rendering of the legend of E. J. Watson. Shadow Country is actually a compilation of three novels: Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man’s River, and Bone by Bone. I have read Killing Mister Watson twice, and I just finished reading the following two novels. The novels are written in three distinct time frames and from three distinct points of view.

In Shadow Country, readers will find numerous reviews that praise the writing of Matthiessen–many more than I can mention in this short review. I can say that he is a writer whose other works (even if they are not about Florida) I want to read. The strengths of his writing and prose are his gifts of dialogue that capture the idioms and speech of Florida ethnic groups. He reveals numerous and interesting historical and geographical details. In his writing, the reader can discover the landscape and history of South Florida. Plants, animals, long-lost forgotten communities, customs, laws, social mores, storms, and the pioneers who settled South Florida are encountered in an unforgettable way.

To me, the most haunting fact of all is that the real E. J. Watson is a historically significant person. These novels reveal the conflicts Watson created and how people responded to Watson (and people like him), and how one’s responses to his violence (perceived, imagined, or actual), his manipulations, successes and possible benefits influenced their world.

If you are a writer who wants to see good writing, to discover numerous well-turned phrases and to encounter a little known world of South Florida, this is a collection you need to read.