Friday, January 30, 2009

The "Mr. Watson" Trilogy


Killing Mr. Watson
Lost Man’s River
Bone by Bone

A trilogy by Peter Mathiessen

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2007)

Suppose you reside in a peaceful backwater, making a living off the land and providing for your family, when one day a stranger appears and changes everything. This stranger, a well-mannered and nicely dressed gentleman, has a menacing air about him and likes the isolation of your corner of the Everglades. While his public behavior is proper and he establishes a productive sugarcane plantation, rumors surface that he murdered a famous outlaw, that he broke out of jail to avoid a lynch mob, and that he killed his employees on pay day when money was tight. Even more alarming is his reputation as a sharpshooter. After a time, it seems everyone in your community is afraid of him and is therefore relieved when he abruptly leaves his loving family, his successful plantation and the fine home he has built, in the wake of a grisly double murder on the property. You and your neighbors assume that he either did the crime or caused it to happen, and everyone hopes he never returns because there is no law enforcement in this place and time – southwest Florida in the early 1900s – and thus you might be required to take the law into your own hands.

Edgar J. Watson (1855-1910) is one of Florida’s most notorious historical figures. He was tall, powerful, and ruggedly handsome, but it was the look in his eyes that revealed his cold soul. While very few facts about him are known, many stories exist of crimes he is alleged to have committed as well as of his skill at farming and of his larger-than-life personality. He settled in a part of south Florida – the Everglades and the 10,000 Islands – which was largely empty of people because it barely qualified as land. Through intimidation and an understanding of land rights, Mr. Watson laid claim to the highest and most fertile parcel of land in the region. He built a grand home on his sugar cane plantation and was the only man in the Chokoloskee Bay area to own a motor boat. From his plantation overlooking the Chatham River, Mr. Watson could see a boat approaching his island home from almost any direction and was, therefore, never surprised by a visitor. He valued his privacy and made sure that everyone knew it.

Shortly after his arrival in the 10,000 Islands, rumors began circulating that Watson had ambushed Belle Starr, a legendary outlaw, in 1889. Miss Starr, an accomplished horse thief, aided and abetted fugitives and criminals by allowing them to hide on her land within Choctaw and Cherokee Territories. Mr. Watson supposedly was dodging a murder charge and repaid Miss Starr’s kindness by gunning her down when she threatened to turn him over to the authorities. This was never proven and there are discrepancies in the stories which provide room for doubt that the Edgar Watson of southwestern Florida was the same man who murdered Belle Starr.

Mr. Watson married three times, had two common-law wives, and fathered 10 children. During his life, he was arrested, tried, and acquitted of murder. Many people he knew including several in his employ, disappeared or were brutally murdered. Circumstantial evidence implicated Watson in several of these murders, but rarely was there enough hard evidence to have him arrested and convicted. On October 24, 1910, an informal posse of his neighbors gunned him down at Chokoloskee Bay upon his return from a brief exile. No one in the posse would say who fired the shot that killed Mr. Watson. These are the facts around which Peter Mathiessen created his trilogy on the life and times of Edgar J. Watson.

Peter Mathiessen is both novelist and natural historian. He delves into the history of people and places in crafting his books, and seamlessly tells the story of how places change as a result of human activity over time. Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man’s River, and Bone by Bone tell the same story – how it is that Edgar J. Watson came to be executed by his neighbors at Chokoloskee Bay – in three different ways. Mr. Mathiessen clearly immersed himself in his subject and was apparently unable to write a single book about the legendary Mr. Watson. Even though the first book starts with Mr. Watson’s execution, each book compels the reader to want more information and understanding of this man who evoked such passionate feelings in those who knew him.

In Killing Mr. Watson, the author seems to believe that most of the stories about Mr. Watson are overblown gossip; the product of overactive imaginations and embellished memories. Killing Mr. Watson, is a series of imagined first person recollections by neighbors, acquaintances, and relatives of Mr. Watson and the world they inhabited. Mr. Mathiessen brings each character to life with the skillful use of dialect and diction which in turn motivate the reader to piece together a complete picture of what it was like to be in Mr. Watson’s world. At the end, which is also how the book begins, the reader is in the middle of that posse, gun in hand and index finger ready to squeeze the trigger when Mr. Watson walks across the invisible, but clear, line in the sand at the river’s edge.

The second book, Lost Man’s River, is an imaginary quest by Mr. Watson’s son Lucius to learn the truth about his “beloved Papa”. Lucius, in his sixties, had made a career as a historian and was somewhat famous for his book History of Southwest Florida. Haunted his entire life by the death of his father and frustrated by his family’s refusals to discuss the man, Lucius placed an ad in a newspaper asking anyone for information about E. J. Watson. The book opens with an anonymous response to the ad which is the deposition of one of the men in the posse. This deposition triggers Lucius to contact the executioners of his father and journey back in time. In addition to discovering the truth about his father, he learns how brutally the Florida landscape was ravaged and what the ugly legacy of racism has wrought.

Finally, Bone by Bone is Mr. Watson’s chance to explain himself and how he became a cold-blooded serial murderer. Mr. Mathiessen seemingly channels Mr. Watson’s voice as he recounts the hardships and tragedies he endured in his early life which caused him to lose his humanity. This is a gut-wrenching book both because of the pain experienced by Mr. Watson throughout his life as well as his matter-of-fact descriptions of the murders he committed, some of which are truly horrific. Of the three, this book is the most challenging, but arguably the best.

Each book in the Edgar Watson Trilogy can stand on its own but, taken together, the trilogy is a masterpiece of fiction, research, and natural history, not unlike Moby Dick. Mr. Mathiessen’s epic describes southwestern Florida in the period following the Civil War when humans, through hubris and greed, drove many bird and animal species to the brink of extinction and began planning to drain the Everglades. While Henry Flagler was busy building his railroad from St. Augustine to Miami, sowing the seeds of the massive population influx to come, the southwest coast could only be reached by boat. The isolation and impenetrability of the swampy islands made this a popular destination for criminals, outlaws, and others needing to disappear for a while. In each of these three books, Mr. Mathiessen brings the reader deep into this almost uninhabitable place where the law was only a loosely understood concept.

I first read these books long before moving to Florida and found them each to be deeply moving in different ways. Killing Mr. Watson made my heart ache for the Everglades and the animals which were killed with so little thought so that ladies in Paris could be stylishly dressed. The second book is more reflective; the main character not only learns about his father, he also learns about himself and his family. In the end, Lucius is freed from the past. Bone by Bone caught me off guard by the depth and many facets of Mr. Watson’s personality. It is an important reminder of how a brutal childhood can deprive a person of his humanity, something that as a society, we should all be concerned about.

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