Friday, July 23, 2010

Review of Shadow Country

I've been remiss in writing my book reviews this year, and while I don't have a great excuse, I'm still going to use the fact that I've been plagued by morning sickness throughout my entire pregnancy as a semi-excuse. Feeling like barfing all the time just hasn't been conducive to writing. But I digress...I'm here now, on maternity leave, finally feeling better (at week 39), so it's now or never to catch up on my reviews before the baby arrives.

I started Shadow Country before U.S. Thanksgiving way back in 2009, but at 892 pages it took me until the end of January to finish. Shadow Country is actually three books combined into one. This was the Peter Matthiessen's original intent when he first wrote the novel, but was forced by his publisher to publish as three separate books. Now that he is an accomplished writer, he received his publisher's blessing to rework the three books into the one he had originally conceived, and it masterful.

The book is divided into three parts, all of which center around the notorious E.J. Watson. Watson was a sugar planter in the Florida Everglades at the turn of the 20th Century, and huge legends surrounded him from the time he moved there, thanks to his somewhat notorious past out west. He was rumored to have killed a prostitute, Belle Starr, in a fit of passion, which he always denied. But this led to several other rumors surrounding murdered acquaintances, most of which became attributed to Watson as his legend grew.

The first book opens with Watson's murder on the first page, so you know at the beginning that he his killed by a mob following a devastating hurricane in the Gulf Coast of Florida. But what you don't know is how it came to be, or why. The next 800 pages contain an incredible story that unravels the how and why, and by the end, you realize that there isn't a clear answer, and that everyone has their own interpretation or rationale or story to help explain.

The first book is told from the perspective of everyone in Watson's life but Watson himself, with alternating chapters and distinct voices and dialects (difficult to read at times). The second book is told from his son Lucious' perspective years after his father's death as he tries to piece together fact vs. fiction and what exactly happened on that fateful day after the hurricane. The final book is told by E.J. Watson himself, and we are let into the infamous man's mind and learn the "truth" about all of the stories and legends that surround him.

Shadow Country was not an easy read, but it was an immensely satisfying one, particularly because Matthiessen is a master at putting the reader smack into the middle of the scene. His descriptions of the Everglades at the turn of the last Century are incredible, and for the first time in my life I have a real interest in visiting that part of the country and exploring the area. If you're looking for an epic summer read, I highly recommend this book.


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