Sunday, October 13, 2013

Bone by Bone, by Peter Matthiessen

There is a lot to recommend this book. It provides remarkable pictures of the US, in particular Florida, during the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. It provides one way to view the world of E.J. Watson, a legendary character in Florida in that time. It offers a bit of a cautionary tale about ecology, albeit in the background. Yet for me its story of Watson was almost relentlessly awful. That is, the things Watson did and the things that were done to him were almost all bad. The small lights in his world did not shine brightly enough to turn his character around, and his actions led to retaliation of the worst sort.

Watson was a real person. The people surrounding him were based on real people, including his three wives and I-forget-how-many children. However, this is not history. It is not even fictionalized biography. It is the author's effort to explain the little he was able to find out about this man. 

Watson's start in life did not bode well for the future. He fled from an abusive dirt-poor home when he was sixteen. He had a powerful work ethic, which helped him build a sugar cane plantation in Florida, along with other efforts. He fell in love seriously with his first wife, who died young. Perhaps his loveless childhood and the loss of this wife were contributors to his view of the world. Try as he might, he was unable to maintain an ethical, decent manner toward all. Instead, when pushed he would push back, and worse. He "did right" by a few people but even in those cases there was a limit to what he could offer. He put himself first.

The book is written in an interesting way, almost, in some places, like a book on the environment or a historical nonfiction book. As Matthiessen has written nonfiction as well, I think it was natural for some of that style to slip in here. The passages about Watson himself are well-drawn, yet I was never able to be fully sympathetic. Not having that connection made it difficult at times for me to push on.

Certainly it is a remarkable book. The author has taken what little he could find and pulled it together in not one but three books. This is the third of a trilogy on the Watson saga. This is the one that gets into the flesh and blood of the man. I found I was less impressed by it than were others because of the constant beating of awful awful awful. It was hard for me to swallow some of his actions and to continue wanting to know what would happen next. I sincerely hope that this book finds other readers who do not find it as much a chore as I did. 

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