If you’re a fan of Peter Matthiessen’s National Book Award winner, Shadow Country, you
may already have taken a day out of a Florida vacation and traveled to the Ten Thousand Islands area of southwest Florida to get a look at where the story happened. Shadow Country is a fictionalized account of the story of the notorious real-life Everglades sugar cane planter and outlaw E. J. Watson at the turn of the 20th century. But now, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (the fictional story of Ava Bigtree, a 12-year-old alligator wrestler who embarks on a strange journey through the area’s mangrove wilderness in search of her lost sister) creates another reason to investigate this section of the Everglades. So, last week a friend and I made the two-hour trip from Miami (it’s much closer to Naples on Florida’s Gulf Coast) to get a view of the mysterious watery world of these books.
We set out with fishing guide, Captain Rodney Raffield, from his home on Chokoloskee Island. Unlike the northern saw grass portions of the Everglades where the water is fresher, this section consists mostly of thousands mangrove islands in saltwater near the Gulf of Mexico. The Watson place is now a remote National Park Service campsite. There isn’t
much left of the homestead except a huge vat where they boiled sugar cane to make syrup. However, the Smallwood Store, the site where E.J. Watson was murdered by his neighbors, is still there on Chokoloskee Island and open as a
A boat ride around the area offers an impressive glimpse of the seemingly unending expanse of the Everglades. To a visitor, there seem to be very few landmarks, so it was a pleasure to travel with Raffield, an affable fifth-generation resident of the area and a former stone crab fisherman who knows the place like the back of his hand and has plenty of stories to prove it. As we wound our way through the mangrove islands, which are really just clumps of tangled roots rather than solid ground, we saw huge numbers of nesting birds. And, the alligators lolling on every open bank (some as much as twelve feet long), were the kind one might see on a tour of Russell’s fictional alligator park Swamplandia! Neither sea nor land, the Ten Thousand Islands make the perfect setting for Ava’s ghostly and gothic travels through the backwaters.
It’s a place where anything could happen… even something as unlikely as we non-fishers casting our lines for a few minutes and catching a “mess a fish,” as Raffield says. We then hustled over to the Havana Café in Chokoloskee, where they cooked ‘em up and we ate ’em, back on solid ground.