Peter Matthiessen and Robb White: From Shadow Country to The Lion's Paw

"This is a perplexing country. We can put a man on the moon, but we can't stop people from wearing Spandex pants to the mall. America will drive you crazy that way."

I read that somewhere long ago. Wish I could remember the writer's name. It describes how I feel about Florida. At times, this place is serene and beautiful, and other times it is supremely awful. And it does drive us crazy, perhaps because we love it so.

If we want to focus on the serene-and-beautiful, many writers have become poet laureates of that Florida. Starting with William Bartram and up through the two Marjories — Kinnan Rawlings and (Marjory) Stoneman Douglas — the rough-hewn beauty of primitive Florida has been well-preserved. And through the novelists of the "Florida Mayhem" school (Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey, Tom Corcoran, many others), some of the state's intrinsic weirdness has also been recorded.

Two great Florida writers made their homes elsewhere. Few would ever put their names together, yet they both managed to write about that first Florida we have come to idealize.

The first is the easy pick: Peter Matthiessen. My money's on him to be the next American winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Sorry, Philip Roth — you deserve it too, but the Nobel committee looks for writers more international in scope, and your navel-gazing into the life of the 20th-century American Jew, brilliant as it is, apparently doesn't seem to interest the folks in Stockholm. A shame, that.)

Matthiessen, with his big themes of heroism, endurance and the environment, is a writer with a larger worldview. His literary cred is beyond reproach: postwar expatriate, co-founder of the Paris Review, writer of Good Books For Good Publishers That Get Good Reviews. And, coincidentally, a man who has written lovingly and lyrically about Florida, often from his home on Long Island.

Then there's the second guy. Maybe you never heard of him. Maybe you think he can't carry Matthiessen's pencil. Look over the arc of his career and maybe you think "journeyman." But I think he belongs here.

Robb White.

Who?

He wrote children's books and adventure stories. He wrote movies, too — some of those classic horror cheesefests by William Castle decades ago, including House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts and The Tingler. The last starred Vincent Price and featured under-the-movie-seat electric vibrations to jangle the audience's gonads during the scary part.

Robb White was a professional writer. He wrote a lot — to pay the bills, to support his family, to deliver to us the maritime stories sailing through his imagination. Born in the Philippines to an American minister, his real life was an adventure. After World War II, he settled in Thomasville. Ga., and wrote an adventure story for kids. None of us who read it have ever been able to forget it.

The Lion's Paw (Doubleday, 1946) was about two orphans, a brother and a sister, who escape the orphanage and find another runaway, a teenaged boy whose father is missing in action in the war. He's taking his father's sloop before his uncle can sell it. On the run, the three children sail up the Atlantic Coast, take the Port St. Lucie Inlet through to Lake Okeechobee and on to the Gulf Coast and the Ten Thousand Islands.

When I was a child in South Florida, that part of the state was not yet a concrete jungle. There were miles of open fields, marshlands and canals. The fourth-grade boys had prolific adventures and rich, full fantasy lives. We passed around The Lion's Paw like a talisman. Though the book was nearly 20 years old by then, to us it was not dated and told of a journey still possible. It was the source of our daydreams and our games around the canals, and the school library awarded us audience with it for only a week at a time, no renewals possible.

When I think back on my childhood and what made me into the person I am and what made me love reading, it was probably this book.

As an adult, I began looking for the book, something to share with my children. But by then I lived half a continent away and The Lion's Paw had no meaning to librarians of the Great Plains. They'd indulge me by looking it up and utter those three horrifying words: "Out of print."

Returning to Florida a couple decades back, I began haunting old bookstores, hoping to find a copy. But it's the sort of book people hold on to. I never gave up hope, but never had any luck either.

Peter Matthiessen began his saga of Edgar Watson around the time I began looking for The Lion's Paw. As a Serious Writer, his trilogy about the Everglades of a hundred years ago was highly regarded and well reviewed: Killing Mr. Watson (Random House, 1990), Lost Man's River (Random House, 1997) and Bone by Bone (Random House, 1999). Now he has brought the whole story together in Shadow Country (The Modern Library, 2008), which cuts and tightens the epic into one volume. Magnificent and monumental, it won the National Book Award last month amidst controversy — was it a new work or a revision of old work? — but it nonetheless demonstrates again the brilliance of this 81-year-old author.

Lyrical and revered, Matthiessen's work will probably bring him the awards and recognition he's so long deserved.

Robb White, the journeyman, will probably never have that sort of recognition. But his work was — for readers, at least — the building block that led to Shadow Country.

And now, mostly because of a family and devoted readers who will not let the book die, The Lion's Paw is back in print (A.W. Ink, 2008). A uniquely American adventure that children and adults can enjoy and appreciate, it's lyrical in its own way, and deftly conveys the wilderness and wonder for the children of postwar Florida. Maybe this journeyman was a master after all.

(Note: The Lion's Paw can be ordered by your favorite local bookstore and is also available at thelionspaw.org.)

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