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Violence in the Everglades
on 25 December 2010
This book is a fictionalised account of events leading up to the lynching of E.J. Watson, by a group of his neighbours. The action takes place on the southwest coast of Florida round about the turn of the 20thC. At that time, this was pioneer country, with no real roads and the nearest law officer a day or more away.
Watson was a larger than life character, both liked and feared by those around him. He was a successful farmer and businessman, running a sugar cane plantation and trading in cane syrup. He could be generous to his neighbours, and was widely admired; but he also had a reputation as a hell-raiser and people were wary of his temper - and of the gun he always carried.
Shadow Country is written in three parts (called "books" by the author). The first book is told in the first person by as many as 12 different narrators, all giving their view of events. This narrative hangs together quite well, giving a more or less sequential account, whilst offering the reader different angles and points of view.
The second book is told in the third person and follows the quest by Watson's son, now a historian, to find out the truth of what happened. Book III provides a first person account by Watson himself - thus providing the reader with a full resolution.
I read only the first book of the three. There is much that is positive about this book; the narrative flows well from one person to the next, and doesn't feel disjointed, despite the numerous short chapters. Matthiessen also excels at descriptive writing, and I felt I learned a great deal about the ecology of the region and what it would have been like to live there between 1890 and 1910. However, I found the story slow to develop, and I never really felt empathy for the characters - with the result that I didn't particularly care what happened to any of them. I read to the end of the first book to see how events played out, but I wasn't sufficiently interested in to continue with books II and III.
If you are interested in learning about the history and ecology of south west Florida and the mysteries surrounding E.J. Watson's life and death, then this book provides a wealth of interesting material. However, if you are hoping for a thriller, then you will probably be disappointed.