on June 18, 2007
"The Shadow Catcher" is a highly enjoyable novel. The frame story uses a device that seems to be coming up in a lot of very recent books: the main character, who tells the story, has the same name as the author, and seems to have many similar characteristics. "Marianne Wiggins" -- the character who might be the author -- begins with some observations about artwork: "Let me tell you about the sketch by Leonardo I saw one afernoon in the Queen's Gallery in London a decade ago, and why I think it haunts me." (p. 1)
The first two chapters could possibly be autobiograpical: the narrator is a writer, trying to sell a script to an unnamed Hollywood personality. She lives in LA and obsesses about traffic and alterate ways to avoid the worst congestion. She knows about celebrities. She has a home and a car. Her book is about Edward Curtis, photographer, who created the common understanding of what it looked like to be an Indian. All the details of her life could be either truth or fiction: it's not a critical matter.
On page 43, the novel turns to "her" book. It starts with the early life of Edward Curtis's wife Clara, daughter of a painter whose works are no longer desired because photography has replaced his skills. We see how she and her younger brother happened to travel out to the territory of Washington to live with his family. As Clara meets Edward Curtis, we meet him. As he develops into a skilled and artful photographer, we see him through her eyes, and we find out how she teaches him what she's learned about painting: the link to the first thoughts of "Marianne Wiggins" and her passion for Renaissance Italian art.
A marvelous aspect of The Shadow Catcher is the constant reference to the works of Curtis, which are reproduced so much that every reader can probably visualize them. In case you don't have the photos in your mind's eye, very small reproductions of the works and of other relevant material appear in the text: I think the use of illustrations in a novel is another 21st century trick that's coming into its own. (You can also find very good reproductions online.)
Eventually a completely unexpected turn of events in the Frame Story causes an unexpected nexus between "Marianne Wiggins" the narrator, the legacy of Edward Curtis, and even the title of the book. The author leaves behind the early themes of creating visual art and of comparing photography to painting. There's nothing wrong with the way the book treats these themes, but the unexpected plot element is what makes a seemingly predictable work into an exciting read. I don't want this to be a spoiler, so I'll stop now.
For two years Marianne Wiggins traveled the country doggedly researching Edward Curtis, the famous and highly controversial American Indian photographer and ethnologist. Wiggins wanted to write a novel about this man. She wanted to get inside him--understand him, and write a novel that exposed the real human being behind the legend.
Curtis' life only recently became public domain: he is dead and all his children are dead. Now, he is fair fodder for historical novelists. But Wiggins is not a genre historical novelist. She is a gifted literary novelist, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, a writer of formidable originality. Why would she undertake a project like this? What alchemy did she have in mind?
When she began her quest to dig into Curtis' life, Wiggins was in love with the idea of the man--the handsome, creative, rugged, bigger-than-life, self-made frontiersman. But the more she researched, the more she began to dislike him--the more she wanted to drop the project altogether. But she persisted, and this persistence actually becomes an integral part of the novel. In looking for the story in Curtis, she finds the story in herself, her own life, her own relationship to her father. Wiggins' historical novel about Edward Curtis eventually leads us deep into the psychology of magical explaining--of myth making for mental health's sake. The result is pure literary gold.
So what alchemy does Wiggins ultimately deliver in this novel? The work is actually two novels in one: one set in Curtis' early years and the other set in the author's present. The construction is liberating--pure magic pops up unexpectedly throughout. Wiggins creates a compelling, transcendent, soaring work of fiction. So breathtaking is Wiggins' prose, that at times I found myself stopping, closing my eyes, and just savoring the aching perfection of a passage. Here is prose that is sparkling, humorous, ironic, soaring, transcendent--and yet at the same time it is prose that finds room for snapping social commentary and for me, most enjoyable of all, life-affirming thematic insights. I was spellbound from the first few pages.
Wiggins begins her novel in the present day, with herself as the first-person narrator. Wiggins (the character) has written a book about Edward Curtis and her agent arranges an appointment with some Hollywood types who want to option her book for a movie. She arrives home after the interview, to find a series of mysterious messages from a hospital in Las Vegas. They have an unconscious, near-death patient in their ICU who the hospital identifies as Wiggins' father. But Wiggins knows that her father unmistakably committed suicide decades earlier. Who is this imposter? Why has he stolen her father's identity? Why does he carry a newspaper article about her in his wallet? And so the mystery begins.
But in this short opening section, Wiggins also pulls out the stops--she entertains the reader with a full symphony of literary talents. The overture is a soaring love song to America, the country in her heart, and to Los Angeles, the city in her soul. She follows this with humorous and biting social commentary about the movie-making business. If you read this brief opening section and are not thoroughly won over by this novel...well, all I can say is that this work is not for you. But it had me from the first page!
Enveloped inside this present-day story, we find the other novel. This second novel is presented in two long sections, with a brief visit to the present-day story in between. The inner novel is a third-person narrative written in a completely different tone--somber, haunting, slow. The focus is full-on characterization. This is prototypical, heart-wrenching, transcendent historical fiction and it tells the early life of Edward Curtis from the point of view of his long-suffering wife, Clara. Through Clara's life, from the woman's point of view, Wiggins is able to unmask part, but not all, of the man who Curtis was underneath the legend.
Clara's life with Curtis was brief. Wiggins uses her present-day narrative to explain important aspects of Curtis' later years. Ultimately, she uses this plot line to provide the evidence that finally pulls the curtain aside and reveals what may only have been guessed at before.
In the end, this is a novel about myth-making, magical explaining--what we all do, everyday, to maintain our mental health. How we reinvent the truth, so we can live within it. This is a book about children of absent fathers, how these children desperately cling to myths about their fathers in order to help them live with the reality of their abandonment. It is also about how these children are destined forever to try to win their fathers' attention and approval. It is a novel about the impossibility of knowing anyone's motives, even one's own. It is a novel about how the Curtis children saw their father as a man who could do no harm, even when wrong was all he ever did. It is novel about how our species creates whatever stories we need just so we can cope.
In the end, Marianne Wiggins does a magnificent job of bringing the complex portrait of Edward Curtis to life. When the book ends, we feel we know this man--his personality, what drives him. As a bonus, we start questioning our own lives--trying to uncover the magical explaining in our own everyday lives. Do our myths truly help us, or are we better off knowing and living with the real truth? Can we ever know the truth?
This is not a book for everyone. Some readers will be offended by the license that Wiggins takes with Curtis' life. Others will be put off by the thematic digressions that move the reader away from the compelling plot. These same readers will probably be unimpressed with the great richness these thematic digressions provide. I predict that women will love this novel more than men because it gives an unabashedly woman's point of view about significant matters of the heart. All this being said, I recommend this work highly. I can easily see why Wiggins was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize (for another, earlier work). I have no doubt that she will go on to achieve greater national recognition in the future.
It is hard to know where to begin praise for this book, there are so many different mysteries to be solved. Wiggins has managed to incorporate themes of race, identity, holocaust, personal freedom, responsibility, and has even added touches of humor that make the reader laugh out loud. There was a section that almost made me put the book down, where it slid dangerously close to romance novel, but remembering the early, contemporary scenes that so thoroughly engaged me, I kept at it, and was very very glad I had. That section was weak for a reason, which although not spelled out, became apparent in the resolution.
This story weaves the past (1850-1950) and the present (post 9-11) where Wiggins, the author and also the narrator, tells the story of the legendary (but complicated) life of photographer Edward Curtis (and his family) along with her own introspective and retrospective look at her father's life. Both men were in search...were on the run...were absent and disappearing fathers...who left a trail of consequences behind.
Human beings are not what they seem to be on the surface - there are nuances and shadows which we will never fully understand - yet in many ways, we are all connected between the past and the present. Here are a few words from Wiggins' book to give you a flavor of the beautiful writing you can expect:
"I watch the smoke braid and rise into the tree, a shadow branching growth, a ghost, and I think about the ways that lives can intertwine, the way one life touches on another, our lives and all the lives of others a long continuous tread - a train - of independent yet contiguous action."
If you enjoyed this gem of a book, you'll love Wiggins' "Evidence of Things Unseen," a National Book Award finalist.
on June 18, 2013
Hmmm, a difficult one to review. The story of Edward Curtis and the separate story of Marianne Wiggins were both very interesting concepts.
I loved the story of Edward Curtis but felt that the author did not go into enough detail for me. I was frustrated at the way she seemed to summarise a lot of it and gloss over a lot that, I felt, was important to this part of the story. This story should have been a book in itself and I would have loved to read it.
On the other side, the current story of Marianne Wiggins was over done. It had an interesting baseline, the loss of her father and the mistaken/stolen identity of her father. I thought she rambled on too much about what was going around in her mind which did not add anything to the story the book was trying to tell. I was also left with so many unanswered questions, why Curtis Edwards stole the identity, who was Clarita and how was she related to Edward Curtis and Clara and so many more.
Still a fairly interesting read and it will make a good book group discussion but not one that I would say everyone should rush out and read.
3 out of 5 for me.
on June 25, 2007
This was recommended to me at my local bookstore (definitely not Barnes & Noble). The owner hadn't read it, but said he liked Marianne Wiggins, and his picks have been good in the past, and this was no exception. I loved this book. It's more accessible than Sebald, who Ms. Wiggins acknowledges as the inspiration behind the use of photographs. It's better I think than Ondaatje's Divisadero, weaving multiple story lines. It's beautifully written. If the author gave out an email address (and I certainly understand why this author wouldn't), I would throw out the following comments which are of no great importance:
The television show Route 66 did not use the Bobby Troupe song as its theme. There was a Nelson Riddle instrumental instead.
Paladdin was the name of the lead character in Have Gun Will Travel, not a separate show to the best of my recollection.
And at the luncheon at the Bel Air, who is Allison who suddenly becomes part of the conversation? A mistake? Or did I just miss something?
In any case, I loved learning about the speed and distance which we travel through space, about the history of Seattle, about Edward Curtis, about the drive from LA to Las Vegas. I liked spending time with these characters, I liked spending time with this author's voice, and will read her previous novel next.
P.S. to Amazon: must you use a trivial star rating system. This isn't a movie or food.
on June 27, 2007
Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) was a remarkable photographer, skilled in the sort of black-and-white photography that graces calendars and history books, the nuanced shades and shadows giving life to men and women and landscapes that existed well before any that are encased in our contemporary memories. The vanishing tribes of the great American West, the victims of our push towards the Pacific, the peoples who were here to enjoy the natural splendor of this country before the aggressive white man came to pass over its hills and valleys --- this is the world that Curtis showcased in his lush yet stark photography.
However, as Marianne Wiggins points out, he often dressed members of different tribes in one tribe's dress to make the picture look better. That way, the Sioux, Cherokees and others were as mixed-up as his emotional world, where loving his family interfered with his freewheeling artistic life and thus caused so much conflict that his wife was forced to divorce him after years of happiness together. He is the P.T. Barnum of the post-Custer experience, a pioneer of good old American spin that the author documents with a novelist's eyes and ears.
Wiggins is also a character in this book. Like Augusten Burroughs, Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson, she documents one American life by contextualizing its emotional messiness with examples from her own personal journey. As Curtis constantly escapes his wife Clara and their family to find freedom in his art, so too does Wiggins's dad look for that elusive freedom by separating from the family when she was young, leaving a photo behind that reads "When we were happy." This is messy stuff, an all-American story of two human beings whose penchant for some greater liberation made the love and devotion of their families feel like the Ancient Mariner's albatross, clasped firmly around the neck, choking the life out of them.
The book, written with Wiggins's immeasurable skill in word manipulation, is a fascinating study of all the things that make a man an iconic American male --- the need for freedom, great passion, love of the road, a heart that can invite and incite great love but can't deal with the everyday responsibilities that kind of intimacy brings. When Wiggins, on her way to a surreal meeting with Hollywood types about writing a screenplay adaptation of this book, is confronted by a man whose I.D. makes him out to be her long-lost and long-thought deceased father, the intensity of the narrative increases. It's not just a biopic waiting to happen; instead, the author finds herself examining Curtis's story for clues as to why her own paterfamilia decided that the American road held greater promise than their little backyard. This twist adds a poignancy and a bit of poison to Curtis's story.
The reader can't help but feel badly for Wiggins and thus feel that Curtis and all other like-minded men are somewhat bad guys for following passions that proved too bountiful for domesticity. It is a strange place to put readers --- giving them a hero who they may not be supporting completely, surrounding his artistic achievements with Barnum-esque baloney that lessens the impact of his work somewhat. THE SHADOW CATCHER is a pentimento --- the further you peel off the surface, the more there is underneath, a whole world that could only be examined by entering it from a contemporary mindset.
Wiggins has given us a deep and layered read that will require more than your usual beach reading time to absorb. Do yourself a favor and read it twice --- once straight through and then again to take in how her personal story reflects on Curtis's mendacity. THE SHADOW CATCHER casts a long shadow --- and when the sun comes out again, it doesn't shy away from the realities it exposes.
--- Reviewed by Jana Siciliano
on December 3, 2014
Marianne Wiggins writes beautifully. She is a wordsmith, and reading her writing is a pleasure. However, I gave up an 8th of the way through the book because I was also bored to tears. Good writing and an intriguing story line obviously don't always go together. Perhaps if I had stuck with it, I might have liked it all, but I felt I had given up enough of my time in spite of the admiration I have for her ability to write.
To say this is book a novelization of Edward Curtis' life does not come close to doing justice to this fine piece of writing. It is the narator's story and it is about a lot of things including the life of photographer Edward Curtis. It is about legend and reality, myth and shadows. It is about attempting to understand the secrets we all carry with us. This story works on so many levels. First, and foremost, it is beautifully written. There is something magical about the prose and the inclusion of the Curtis photographs that works quite successfully. Why 4 stars? I would have preferred 4 1/2 stars. The only hold back was that it was not compelling read. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!
on July 9, 2007
"Edward Sheriff Curtis was a photographer who was known for his pictures of Native Americans. Wiggins blends fact and fiction to create a spell binding narrative of the vanishing west of the United States by incorporating the life of Curtis into a current effort to make a movie about him in Hollywood. Impossible to put down."