“Shadow Country” by Peter Matthiessen

I started Shadow Country this past April, soon after the Morning New Tournament of Books. Cited by many of the judges as one of the books they skipped, I can now see why. At just under 900 pages, it’s not only long, but it’s dense. The number and sprawl of an enormous cast of characters was beyond my ability to hold in my head; at about page sixty I went back to the beginning to make a character list since I could not find one online.

Shadow Country the story is historical fiction based on the life and death of Florida pioneer and supposed desperado Edgar Watson. Shadow Country the book has an interesting history as well. Matthiessen originally envisioned and submitted it as one work with three sections, each told from a different point of view. Deemed too long, it was roughly edited into three separate books and released over a period of years. Decades later, Matthiessen decided to have another go at the story, and rewrote it, editing and trimming it down from about 1,300 combined pages to its relatively svelte 892.

I might have preferred it, though, as three separate volumes. It’s so dense with characters, events, locations and history that I had a hard time following it and often had to refer to my notes. Having more literary “cushion” might have made it easier to digest, and a faster read even if it were technically longer.

Though it wasn’t easy to read, I found it worthwhile. So worth it, in fact, that I had to return it to the library with 120ish pages unread when my three rounds of renewal were done, wait several months for it to be available again, then finish it while in the midst of reading Infinite Jest.

There aren’t many books I would do that for. Edgar Watson is a fascinating character. His story is interwoven with that of the state of Florida and a history of racism at the turn of the last century. The first section of the book is told from revolving viewpoints of people and relatives who knew Edgar Watson. The second segment is told by his son Lucius, a historian. The third is told by Edgar himself.

With so many stories growed up around that feller, who is to say which ones was true? What I seen were a able-bodied man, mostly quiet, easy in his ways, who acted according to our ideas of a gentleman.

Few writers could handle these acrobatics of Point of View, yet Matthiessen manages it skillfully, turning the tapestry of the tales into one story, though it’s always shifting. It’s fascinating, compelling stuff. It won the National Book Award last year.

And yet. This would not be a book I would press on a stranger, or even someone I didn’t know very well. It’s clearly a life’s work for Matthiessen. While rewarding, it’s definitely not a book for general audiences. But if you’re interested in U.S. and Florida history, like thick books that you can sink into for weeks or months at a time, or love historical novels with complex characters, then this is certainly worth checking out. Just give yourself plenty of time to devote to it.

2 Responses to ““Shadow Country” by Peter Matthiessen”

  1. Steph Says:

    I remembered that you started this a while back and deemed yourself lost in it for a while. Glad to hear you finally finished it!

    I’m not sure that this is the book for me (I do tend to shy away from loooong chunksters), but I found a like-new copy of it at the used bookstore earlier this week. For only $1.50, I figured it would probably be worth purchasing for my husband, since he has a penchant for big books. In his words, he likes to “beat them”.

  2. girldetective Says:

    This was, for me, definitely one to beat. Worth it, but wearing.