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Group Reads: Post-1990 > Shadow Country Discussion_January 2013

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Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 178 comments Everitt wrote: "Happy New Year to everyone. We hope everyone has enjoyed the holidays and if you are living in the south you know the end of December mean's Spring is just around the corner and that means Mardi Gr..."
This is the only selection for this month that I'll be attempting since I have so many other books going. I honestly didn't know about this book, but I was perusing the great selection of $1 paperbacks at a used bookstore in Flat Rock, NC, and it was in great shape - I bought 20 books that day, ha. I will test it out by reading a chapter and decide from there what book I will focus on next. I'll report back!


message 2: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new)

Diane Barnes | 4107 comments Mod
I read this book a couple of years ago, and really enjoyed the story and the history of the settling of that part of Florida. The story is based on a real man, Mr. Watson, who was a violent, unscrupulous person, but also very charismatic. I'm not going to re-read this one, but will look forward to the comments.


message 3: by Christopher (last edited Jan 03, 2013 08:52AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Christopher (chriswinters) Hey everybody, I haven't taken part in a group read here for a couple months, but I've already dug into this book and I'm finding it really incredible. I'm well into book 2 now, about 330 pages in. Someone better come read this with me!

I'll summarize briefly to hopefully convince others to read it (but I will provide no spoilers): This is a novel in three parts, set in turn of the century southern Florida in a region known as the Ten Thousand Islands, later to become the Everglades. The main subject of the book is the real-life Edgar J. Watson, a shadowy figure who raised up a successful sugar plantation from the infertile, sandy soil. He had a five wives (two of them illegitimate) and ten children.

The book opens on a scene of destruction: a hurricane has just torn through Watson's region of Florida. A posse of Watson's neighbors forms and on the ruined beach they kill Watson as he arrives on shore. So the questions explored in the rest of the book are: who is Watson and why was he killed? Was it a just or unjust death? The structure of the book is also interesting: the first part consists of narrative from Watson's family and acquaintances. The second part is the narrative of Watson's son Lucius trying to reconstruct the story of his father's life years later. And the third and final part is Watson's life story told in his own words.

Notable facts: This novel won the National Book Award for Fiction and Peter Matthiessen is the only author to have won the National Book Award for both fiction and nonfiction.

In reading the first part I was struck by the similarities between this and a previous group read, Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!. Both tell the story of an industrious but ill-reputed and violent man in the South and his death. And they both tell the story from varying perspectives. At first I wondered if Matthiessen was influenced by Faulkner's novel, but given that Shadow Country is based on a real person, I wonder if Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen was based upon Edgar Watson, who died 26 years before the publishing of Absalom.

The themes of Shadow Country and Absalom are also shared: racism, violence, family history, the way stories change throughout time.

All this to say: this book is great! Someone come read it with me!


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 178 comments So far I find it easy to read (short chapters compelling you to keep reading, early drama), and I'm trying to ignore that I'll need to read 850 pages more.

It might just be the publication history or the three books but I keep thinking of 2666 by Robert Bolano. I'll see if that comparison pans out.


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 178 comments The last time I went to Charleston, we saw a faded sign for the "Sewee Shell Mound Interpretive Trail," so of course we drove down a dirt road and pulled into a gravel parking lot not far before dusk. Matthiessen mentions shell mounds several times, so I thought I'd share the image of the one we saw.

According to the sctrails website, a shell mound/ring is an ancient trash pile of oyster rings discarded by Native Americans. That ring is 4,000 years old and on the National Register of Historical Places. It’s the best preserved of a number of similar shell rings found along the East Coast, of which those mentioned in the book would probably be included.






Christopher (chriswinters) Thanks for sharing that, Jenny. I love how Matthiessen uses the shell mounds to connect the Watson story to an older history. I also think it adds to the mysterious/shadowy feel of the novel.

This Wikipedia entry is about Florida's shell mounds specifically and mentions exactly where Watson grew his sugarcane: "...Chokoloskee Island was over .5 miles (0.80 km) in diameter, and up to 27 feet (8.2 m) high." They're a lot bigger and more complex than I imagined them to be. And some of the mounds' original purposes are unclear. Some were just middens (trash heaps), monuments, burial grounds, etc.

I think this is connected to a theme that shows up some in the early parts of the book: environmentalism. The early settlers raped the land. It talks about the plume hunters who hunted the birds in the area to near extinction and how they killed thousands (millions?) of alligators (crocodiles?) for their "flats" (the leather from their undersides). Many people think of Indians as the "noble savage" who used every part of the buffalo, but in reality the Indians made a much bigger impact on the environment than people realize. These shell middens are an example of that. I'm not sure that's a point that Matthiessen was trying to make, but it's something I learned in school when I wanted to be an archaeologist and it's stuck with me.


message 7: by Deborah (last edited Jan 04, 2013 08:02AM) (new) - added it

Deborah | 53 comments It's hugely huge. Dauntingly huge. And big. It moves pov to pov and I sort of dispaired of being able to follow. It's quickly becoming more accessible though.


message 8: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
This will be my primary read for the group this month. Looking forward to it.

Mike


message 9: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Here is The National Book Award Page on Shadow Country. It features Peter Matthiessen's acceptance speech for the 2008 National Book Award. Matthiessen was a previous NBA finalist for At Play in the Fields of the Lord and winner for The Snow Leopard.

Mike


message 10: by Heather (new) - added it

Heather Fineisen | 64 comments Thanks for all of the additional info, it really enhances the reading.


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 178 comments Christopher wrote: "Thanks for sharing that, Jenny. I love how Matthiessen uses the shell mounds to connect the Watson story to an older history. I also think it adds to the mysterious/shadowy feel of the novel.

Thi..."

Yes, the info at the shell ring in Charleston made it clear that they weren't sure why they happened. It could be ritual, it could be an attempt to locate oyster harvest "trash" all in one place, it could be marking of territory. They also indicated these were the native people even earlier than those that the settlers traded with and uprooted, so there is even less known.

I agree with you that it adds an interesting feeling to the story, besides so many of the characters seeming to have some native ancestry. I'm curious to see where it goes.


message 12: by Karen (new)

Karen (karenrj) I've started and am moving slowly along (not because the book isn't compelling, but because I have several others to read for work). It's really good, and I will finish it, although maybe not by the end of this month.

Anyway, Chris is right that Watson is evocative of Sutpen in Absalom, and the narrative also reminds me of As I Lay Dying. I'm hoping to be more specific after I've read more than three chapters!


message 13: by Christopher (last edited Jan 11, 2013 08:05AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Christopher (chriswinters) I did some intense internet research today into the historical life of Edgar Watson and his family and neighbors. I found some cool images:


Edgar A./J. Watson


Watson's house on Chatham Bend


Ted Smallwood in front of his store/post office


Ted and Mamie Smallwood.


The Smallwood store.


The Smallwood store as it exists now.


Watson's grave in the Fort Myers cemetery


grave of Jane S. Dyall Watson, Edgar's second wife and mother of Carrie, Eddie, and Lucius; buried next to Edgar


Lucius Watson's grave


Lucius Watson's service card for WW1. Note: Lucius's middle name is stated here as Hardy, rather than Hampton, as it is in the novel. Also, this shows that he was a machinist's mate in the Navy, rather than a colonel/sniper.


Sheriff Frank Tippen with Seminole Indians


Belle Starr (possibly murdered by Watson) with her lover/friend Blue Duck


message 14: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new)

Diane Barnes | 4107 comments Mod
Wow, Christopher, these pictures are great. I loved this whole saga when I read it a couple years ago, and these pictures make it all come alive. Thanks for doing the research. Watson looks nothing like I had pictured him, and I can't believe Smallwood's store still exists. I've been to the Everglades, and even in present day it feels like the end of the world.


Christopher (chriswinters) You're welcome, I'm glad you like them! Watson doesn't look like I imagined him either. He's a little doughy.

The Smallwood store (http://www.smallwoodstore.com/) is a historic site/museum, but it looks like as of April 2011 it's been inaccessible because the road leading to it is gone. On their website they're trying to get donations to reopen it.


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 178 comments Christopher wrote: "You're welcome, I'm glad you like them! Watson doesn't look like I imagined him either. He's a little doughy.

The Smallwood store (http://www.smallwoodstore.com/) is a historic site/museum, but i..."


I guess when you're the one with the gun, you can be a little doughy. ;)


message 17: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue | 663 comments I haven't started this book yet but hope to soon. Love this background information and the photos are wonderful. Hope to join the discussion soon.


message 18: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new)

Diane Barnes | 4107 comments Mod
This book is truly wonderful, but is a bit of a time committment. It's worth plunging into, though. You'll love it.


Christopher (chriswinters) I'm a bit into the third book now. When I started this book, I was afraid that reading 900 pages consisting of the same story told three times would get tedious. But it's not tedious at all, and there's surprising little overlap. Actually, I think that the concept of it being the same story told three times is inaccurate.

The way I see it, the first book is the Watson legend. It contains all the rumors and stories of Watson, with little certainty of their reality or falsehood.

The second book shows the way in which Watson's family deals with the aftermath of Watson's life and death and the legend that surrounds him. And it uses the device of Lucius's book project to get a little closer to (Matthiessen's) the truth behind the Watson legend.

And the third book introduces a ton of new information, as it begins with Watson's childhood, which went almost unmentioned in the previous books. My question is: do we believe everything Watson tells us? Or is he an unreliable narrator? Or should we always be in doubt of everything? After all, the the title is Shadow Country (and it's a perfect title). Everything in this book is cast in shadow.


message 20: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Christopher wrote: "I'm a bit into the third book now. When I started this book, I was afraid that reading 900 pages consisting of the same story told three times would get tedious. But it's not tedious at all, and th..."

I just wanted to drop you a note and tell you how much I appreciate your contribution to the discussion of this book. Your background, which I love doing so much, is exceptional.

Although I had intended this to be my primary read for the month, I've not begun it, although I intend to. My quandary arises from the fact that during my recent travels I came upon the complete Watson trilogy as Matthiesen originally wrote them. The question is obvious. Read the original, or read the retelling, which I understand amounts to a complete retelling with a cast of previously neglected characters brought to the forefront.

Following is an article about Shadow Country which I thought you and other readers of the book might enjoy as additional background: "Reinventing the Self in Shadow Country," from The Journal of Florida Studies, Vol 1, Issue 1, Fall 2011 http://www.journaloffloridastudies.or...

Many thanks for your good work. While I may be late in joining the read, I won't be far behind.

Mike
"Lawyer Stevens"


Christopher (chriswinters) Thanks a lot, Mike. I've enjoyed your research a lot in the past, too. I look forward to seeing anything else you might dig up regarding Shadow Country.

The answer you bring up is a good one, although it was an easy one for me to answer. By my logic, if Matthiessen was satisfied with his original Watson trilogy, he would have left it the way it was. Instead, he kept fiddling with it for another decade until he came up with Shadow Country. I think Shadow Country is his final product. Not to mention it's a few hundred pages shorter than the other three novels combined. If I were ever to reread this, though, I'd read the original three novels for comparison's sake.


message 22: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue | 663 comments I'm still planning to get to this too. Good to know that it appears so readable.


message 23: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Christopher wrote: "Thanks a lot, Mike. I've enjoyed your research a lot in the past, too. I look forward to seeing anything else you might dig up regarding Shadow Country.

The answer you bring up is a good one, alth..."


After a trip to the library Shadow Country is in hand. The original trilogy is shelved for another day. This one's next up as soon as I finish my re-read of The Reivers.


message 24: by John (last edited Jan 19, 2013 09:53AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

John | 533 comments Lucius and Nell spending time together in the cemetery. Perhaps it's their last.
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They longed to find each other but they could not. They stared at the white stones. She said. "Lucius? Do you ever mourn the happy man you might have been?" Her words cast him back into this dread that he would miss the point of life, all they way down into the caverns of old age.

"Forgive me," she whispered. "You had better go."

He walked toward the gate. Under the banyan tree, he turned to watch her. Very slowly, arms opening and closing like the wings of a gray-green luna moth, she gathered up her things. In the heat shimmer on the stone, his lost love seemed to palpitate as if just alighted. p410


message 25: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John | 533 comments I don't know if I have the stamina to finish this book. I can't figure out where Matthiessen found all this detail. This is a detailed book.


message 26: by Christopher (last edited Jan 19, 2013 04:45PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Christopher (chriswinters) John wrote: "I don't know if I have the stamina to finish this book. I can't figure out where Matthiessen found all this detail. This is a detailed book."

I think he just made most of it up, John. While it's inspired by true events and people, it is a novel and doesn't aspire to accuracy. And that's part of what I love about it. It's fun to try to dissect the facts from fiction and to think about how I would have done the story differently. I'm sorry you're not going to finish it! I'm in the third book now and Matthiessen has surprised me again. It's really fun how he's imagined Watson's early life.


message 27: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John | 533 comments Don't give up on me yet, I was only whining.


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 178 comments John wrote: "Don't give up on me yet, I was only whining."
Ha, you're doing fine, you're at least halfway! I put mine aside at 50 and still plan on getting back to it...

...

maybe tomorrow.


message 29: by Deborah (new) - added it

Deborah | 53 comments I'm enjoying it. But it's a bit overwhelming to read and read and not feel that you're much closer to the end. It's just so big!


message 30: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John | 533 comments Book 3, and we are off to a fast start.


message 31: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
I love how we are dropped into Watson's last day. Talk about in medias res! The voices of the different narrators are unique. I'm so glad the group picked this novel. It is arresting. I'm particularly intrigued by Chevelier and Henry Short. I understand that Short is brought to the forefront in "Shadow Country". I'm also captured by the theme of environment, ecology, and man's effect on the world he conquers. I can tell Matthiesen will twist me into a pretzel by the time I reach the end of this epic saga. Alas, I doubt I will finish by the end of the month. As Deborah has said, "It's just so big!" And that is part of what has captured me so surely.

Mike


message 32: by John (last edited Jan 31, 2013 01:49PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

John | 533 comments At last, it is ended. I have been ready to put a bullet through the eyes of this for awhile now. The charactors are reprehensible. Leslie Cox brings to mind that snickering con from the movie "The Green Mile". You know, the one which killed those little girls. This book cut me deep.


message 33: by Kathy (new)

Kathy Brooke (kathybrooke) Mike wrote: "Here is The National Book Award Page on Shadow Country. It features Peter Matthiessen's acceptance speech for the 2008 National Book Award. Matthiessen was a previous NBA finalist for At Play in ..."

I think I read Shadow Country. I know I read about a book about Watson, Awful man. Saw the movie At Play in the Fields of the Lord. It blew me away. What a movie! Powerful! Whe I read The Poisonwood Bible I thought of the movie.


message 34: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue | 663 comments Well, I've started. Let's see, at a chapter per day I'll finish in.......

But it is interesting, with characters that are certainly not like any others I've met before. And what a time and place! Well I'll be reading for a while. Maybe more than 1 chapter some days.


Christopher (chriswinters) I just finished it, too! I'm going to go ahead and say it - this is one of my favorite books I've ever read and it's going to stick with me. Shadow Country is a potent, entertaining, Faulknerian, heartrending, complex book and I would recommend it to anyone who doesn't mind long books.

John, it's interesting that you compared Cox to a guy in a movie, too. I haven't seen The Green Mile, so I have no idea who you're talking about, but Cox was very much like Ben Foster's character from 3:10 to Yuma (a movie adapted from Elmore Leonard's short story of the same name.) They're both young guys who think it's cool to be bad and they look up to older characters who they model their criminal lives after. Really immature people who don't value human life at all. Aside from Dutchy Melvin near the end of the book, Cox was the scariest character.


Christopher (chriswinters) I'm going to be reading Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard next. It'll be very different than Shadow Country, but I expect it'll be great. It's Matthiessen's memoir of accompanying a naturalist in Nepal on his search for the elusive snow leopard. I think it's a spiritual journey-type book. Matthiessen won the National Book Award for fiction for Shadow Country and he won it for nonfiction for The Snow Leopard.


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 178 comments What is the phenomenon where you jump halfway to the wall each time but never get to the wall? That's the place I am at this book. I swear it gets longer the more I try to read it. I'm going to put it aside for now, but the next time I go down to this part of Florida, I'm packing this. I think it might be best read in the atmosphere of the book. I enjoyed it, even, i just got STUCK.


message 38: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue | 663 comments I'm at about 110 now, reading a couple of chapters or so per day. How far did you make it before you got stuck, Jenny? I'm liking the slow approach though it does make it a bit harder to recall all the names--have to refresh my mind every once in a while. But I have a feeling I'd be doing that anyway.


message 39: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John | 533 comments I know how you feel Jenny. I really had to push myself to finish.


message 40: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Jenny wrote: "What is the phenomenon where you jump halfway to the wall each time but never get to the wall? That's the place I am at this book. I swear it gets longer the more I try to read it. I'm going to p..."

I understand. At times I felt I was Sisyphus rolling that damned rock up the hill, only to have it roll back down as I thought I had reached my goal. I'm sure that you will return to it at some point. I have finished. And I have much swirling through my mind as I prepare to write my review. I must say it is a wondrous read, but requires a great commitment of time.

Mike


message 41: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Sue wrote: "I'm at about 110 now, reading a couple of chapters or so per day. How far did you make it before you got stuck, Jenny? I'm liking the slow approach though it does make it a bit harder to recall all..."

Although I rarely take notes, the twisted genealogy of "Shadow Country" is certainly aided by doing that. Not intending any spoilers, I must say you will find the most fascinating reading in Book III told in Edgar Watson's own words. You will be surprised at his use of language--formal, articulate, and of a former age. It is fascinating stuff.

Mike


message 42: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue | 663 comments Thanks Mike. I'm already somewhat astounded at the frontier aspect of Florida at the turn of the century, the utter lawlessness. Not sure why I should be since there was such force being used in other areas such as the mining industry, etc. to keep people in line. I guess this story just seems so much older than ca 1900, more like earlier in the 1800s, in the illiteracy, the relative squalor, the daily fear, etc. Good history lesson for me with my Northeast background.

I definitely will look forward to Book III. Mr Watson is intriguing, to say the least. I certainly would never have wanted to meet him as I would have been afraid of reacting "incorrectly" by his lights.


message 43: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
For anyone interested, my review of Shadow Country is available at: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...

Mike


message 44: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue | 663 comments I enjoyed your review Mike.

I've now completed book one and I'm looking forward to the next part of the story. But I also want to read As I Lay Dying and others. so I may slow my already slow pace a bit. But I will finish this book as I really am enjoying the telling of this story.


message 45: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Sue wrote: "I enjoyed your review Mike.

I've now completed book one and I'm looking forward to the next part of the story. But I also want to read As I Lay Dying and others. so I may slow my already slow pace..."


Thank you so much Sue. This one took a chunk of time. But it was well spent. All the while I was reading "Shadow Country," I had this niggling thought, "But I've got to read...and...and...*grin*


message 46: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue | 663 comments I know exactly what you mean. This afternoon I was about to start another book and my hand reached for Shadow Country instead since I "only" had a little more to read to finish Book One. I'm trying to put things on top of it now so I can start something else tonight.

I wonder how many times I'm going to think/say I'm glad I joined this group. Heaven knows when I ever would have started this book on my own! And I never would have found all the great background info all the people here have located and shared.


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