By the 1880’s the American West was considered, essentially, tamed. Anyone looking for the next frontier soon heard about the Florida Everglades. Outlaws, adventurers, homesteaders, anyone looking to make his way, people we would now consider entrepreneurs, traveled south, far south, as far as a man could go in these United States.
And as anyone whose family has lived in south Florida for more than two generations can tell you, it was an uncultivated and undomesticated place. Thousands of acres of mangroves and shell mounds, much of it spending part of the year under water. No sheriff existed between Fort Myers and Key West so folks made their own rules as they went along.
And then there was E.J. Watson, an outlaw who was once acquitted of the murder of the infamous Belle Starr. He came to the Ten Thousand Islands on the west coast of the Everglades, and with all that vacant land, he happened to take a fancy to a spot on Chatham Bend, that was already occupied. Within two weeks a boat from Key West brought the lawmen who took the property owner away for crimes committed elsewhere. And Watson took the quit claim. He learned quickly that sugar brings the most money so he made that his primary crop. People who caused him grief soon got more grief than they could handle.
And so, in 1910, right after a major hurricane, E.J. Watson’s neighbors killed him dead for crimes and murders both real and imagined.
Peter Matthiessen, a wonderful novelist, spent years writing three books, Killing Mr. Watson,(1990) which opens with Watson’s death and then tells the story of what led up to it through the eyes of those who knew him. Lost Man’s River, (1998) which tells the story of Watson’s son, Lucius, who tried to clear his father’s name decades after Watson was killed. The final book in the trilogy, Bone By Bone, is the story told from Watson’s view.
Matthiessen always believed that the three books should be one. And so, in 2008, he merged the books into Shadow Country, which comes in at just under nine hundred pages but is un-put-downable. If you have any interest in crime, in untamed lands, in what happens when the crucial decision to become civilized enters the community consciousness, you will love Shadow Country. Most library systems have it.
I’m sure you will enjoy reading about lots of other forgotten books. You can find links on Patti Abbott’s blog. Click here.