About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

*Finally* - #23, Shadow Country

Yes, it took me almost 2 weeks to read this book. Wow. It's a good thing I'd given up trying to rate the books I read numerically, because I'm still trying to figure out what I think about this one. Shadow Country, by Peter Matthiessen, retells and interprets the Watson legend, as explained in my last post. After finishing its nearly 900 pages ... wow. On one hand, what a story -- both the original, and the format in which Matthiessen opts to retell it. On the other, even though I know this edition cuts almost 600 pages out of the trilogy it was initially published as, it seemed really darned long.

There's little suspense about what ultimately happens to Watson; you find out in the first few chapters that he's shot to death outside his own home by a calm but determined mob of his neighbors. The conflict and theme, then, come in finding out how it came to this point: what's Watson's back story, who are his neighbors and relatives, and did he really commit all or any of the crimes of which he's suspected. The 3-book format is an unusual and interesting one, in that it tells the story from 3 different vantage points. Book I begins with Watson's shooting, and then takes the reader through the few years leading up to it from the perspective of about 12 different secondary characters: Bill House, who stands alone among his neighbors in admitting even after the smoke clears that yes, he fired at Watson, and yes, it may have been his shot that killed him; postmaster Ted Smallwood, one of the few who doesn't join the mob; Watson's grown daughter Carrie, who's torn between wanting to trust her father and loyalty to her husband's notions of respectability; and Henry Short, a light-skinned black man raised in the House home whose ambiguous status in the Watson mob -- a part of, and apart from -- mirrors his entire life. Book II, set 20 years after his death, introduces more of Watson's past and his neighbors' experience, as it tells the story of Watson's grown son Lucius, now a history professor, returning to the Ten Thousand Islands to find out what really happened to his father. Lastly, Book III is Watson's life story told in the first person, from his hardscrabble Carolina childhood through the death of his beloved first wife in childbirth, his alleged role in the killing of outlaw madam Belle Starr in the Indian Territories, and the backbreaking buildup of his sugar cane plantation on the southwestern edge of the Everglades.

Oddly, it's not so much the fact that this format essentially retells the story 3 times that makes the book seem unduly long and meandering. That aspect, I liked. While Book I at first seems jumpy and confusing, this serves to give the reader a feel for the complex reality of a multi-player crime scene. Books II and III don't so much tell you the same exact thing over and over again, as they provide additional insights and details into what really happened when ___, and what particular characters' motivations were. The effect for me was that several pieces that didn't make sense in Book I later came back with an "oh, OK, now I get it" once a bit more of the back story became clear. Matthiessen also introduces several weighty themes, which add texture and hints of allegory to the novel: the savage and arbitrary nature of race and racism in the post-Reconstruction South, the near-fatal damage to southern Florida's natural environment; what it means to be man, woman, husband, wife, parent, child in a given society. No, my quibble with the book is that given all the interesting stuff it's trying to do, there's a lot of additional detail which often seems repetitive, and doesn't add much to our understanding of the characters or story. And I'll admit this is a weakness of mine -- I'm always looking for characterization, even though I know it's not what all books are about -- but I found the characters somewhat undeveloped, with the exception of Lucius and Watson himself. Obviously, given the epic nature of the story and the sheer number of players involved, there's no way Matthiessen could have fully fleshed out all of them ... but there were a number who appeared repeatedly and were pretty central to the plot, but were never portrayed in enough detail for me to be fully clear what made this person different from the next.

This is definitely a weighty book with a lot going on. I expect elements of it will percolate through my consciousness for the next few weeks, and eventually, it may improve with a second read. Until then, my recommendation is to read it if you've got the time and patience, especially if you're a fan of historical fiction in a frontier and/or Florida setting ... but expect it to take a while, and be prepared for slow going at first.

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