I had to laugh. Walking in the parking lot with the rest of my class, en route to board our canoes and explore a bit of wilderness, I overheard a tour guide addressing his group. "And over there, behind those trees, Mr. Watson landed his boat to the welcome of 20 men...and when all was said and done, 29 bullets were pulled from Watson's body." Now, I wasn't laughing at the idea of a man being shot to death, just the fact that the tour guide's story was a bit off from what Matthiessen presented in his novel Killing Mr. Watson. And that's why we were here. Having finished the novel, we were to voyage to the southwest Florida coast to the city where it all happened: Chokoloskee.
The real number of bullets that were taken from Watson actually numbered 33, according to record, talk, and subsequently, Matthiessen. Yet, after one takes in the entire novel, even that number doesn't hold 100% validity, a common characteristic of Watson talk. The story of Mr. Watson is told from the points of view of several different people who had contact with him while he was in the area known more generally as the Ten Thousand Islands. With no one person covering every event, and there were many throughout the book, it makes it difficult to make any definitive statement about Watson. Add a whole bunch of bias to any information captured and it becomes even harder.
At the time the events of the novel took place, the turn of the 20th century, Chokoloskee was an area very detached from regular society. People on the run sought refuge in the area's labyrinth of water and mangrove islands. The area was not the most welcoming, with most inhabitants keeping mainly to themselves, leaving no real sense of community to be had. Of course, there was no real governmental structure present in the area, leaving the land pretty much lawless. Yet, Chokoloskee seemed to be a place of little activity, that is, until Mr. Watson arrived. Avoiding a shady past himself, Watson came to the area as many before him had done. Unlike them, however, Watson seemed to garner quite a bit of attention. He was a tough businessman, and made his way up as quickly as possible. For example, unlike every other inhabitant, Watson was able to produce more than he needed himself, allowing him to profit off the extra product. Others merely produced what they needed to survive. Further, he did not get along with the kindest of attitudes. This sternness he presented, along with his ambition, stood out quite a bit among his neighbors. Being the center of attention is not always a good thing, and it certainly wasn't for Watson. Stories and speculation, stemming from emotions including fear and jealousy, placed Watson in direct connection with many deaths in the area. Stories, however, don't hold the amount of validity that would be necessary to hold a case in court. For instance, in the murders most closely associated with Watson, that of the Tucker family, the best evidence against him included a motive and an indefinite whereabouts. Watson was very interested in a particular piece of land, hoping to set up a key trading post that would bring in quite a bit of business. The trouble, however, came with who was on that piece of land. A family of squatters with no written documentation placing them as owners of the land had already built a house upon it. When Watson obtained the land and was notified of the squatters' presence, he became rather angry, making verbal and written threats to that family. A bit later, the husband and pregnant wife showed up dead. Men who pulled up on the scene said they saw a keel mark that was unmistakably Watson's, and he got pinned to the murder. Certainly he denied the accusations, yet never really cooled down, and the attention he drew eventually led to his murder at the guns of over 20 men.
Similar to the confusion and speculation surrounding Mr. Watson, navigating Chokoloskee is not the most straightforward activity. Meeting first as a class next to the Smallwood store, our vantage point allowed us to get a good sense of our bearings. We, however, were a bit detached from wild Chokoloskee; standing upon a seawall adjacent to an old trading post and a marina. In the distance lay several of the islands that form the area known as the Ten Thousand Islands. Viewed from above, the thousands of mangrove islands form hundreds of thousands of possible routes for one to transect. Drawing a line between the islands on a map is quite simple if you're not too picky. Keep the map in hand and take it to the water and things get a bit difficult. The turns are quick and the current can move quite well, so one wrong turn gone unnoticed can send an entire trek off course with little hope of getting back on. Sure, seasoned travelers or long time inhabitants may notice the angle of an island's point, or a distinctive tree, perhaps. Due to the generally uniform nature of the area, however, newcomers may have trouble pinpointing landmarks or distinguishing between one channel or the other. So, if one is unable to impose the map on the landscape, they are not far from lost at all. Traverse with no map from the beginning and good luck finding your way anywhere far from the familiar.
Following the individual stories in Killing Mr. Watson can be as confusing as navigating the Ten Thousand Islands. That island may seem to look familiar, creating a sense of certainty, yet just as Bill House's story almost puts Watson at the scene of the Tuckers' murder, you just can't be sure. And if that's not enough, just as the water cuts new channels and reshapes coastlines in the Ten Thousand Islands with time, stories are changed with time as well.