The story begins in Los Angeles as the character Marianne Wiggins drives around the city. On her way to meet with movie executives, Marianne describes not only the beauty of California but also some of its history. She compares the wide-open wilderness of the West to the more civilized landscape of the East Coast where she grew up. In doing so, the author is setting the stage for the focal character, Edward Curtis, a man who spent much of his life in the mountains, forests, and wilderness areas of the West.
In the next section, the author turns her focus to Clara, who has moved out to Washington Territory (later Washington State). Clara lives with Edward Curtis’s family in an area across the Puget Sound that probably corresponds to present-day Kitsap County on the Olympic Peninsula. The locale is very rustic. The home is located on the edge of a rain forest. Skies are often gray. Tall evergreen trees block out the sun when the skies are clear. The ground is often soggy. Edward and his brother have built the small family home in a small clearing; there are very few neighbors and no central town.
In a flashback, the author takes readers back to Minnesota. In her youth, Clara enjoyed all the excitement of the city of St. Paul. Her father was a painter and her mother was a pianist, so the family home was often filled with other creative people who stimulated Clara’s mind. During a heavy Minnesota winter storm, Clara’s parents were killed. Edward also grew up in Minnesota, but he was raised by his father alone in the wilderness of northern Minnesota. Later, when Edward was a teen, Mr. Curtis heard of the gold rush in Alaska and returned to St. Paul to reclaim the rest of his family and take them out West. With a younger brother to raise and no money, Clara accepted an invitation from Mrs. Curtis to come out West and live with them.
Switching back to the other portion of the story, the author takes readers to Las Vegas as...
By using her name as the name of The Shadow Catcher’s main character, Marianne Wiggins immediately signals a unique approach to storytelling. Her strategy calls into question a basic maxim for reading novels: Never assume the narrator’s voice or the main character in a novel can be equated with the author. She then goes on to write a book where the equation “writer equals character or narrator” makes no difference whatsoever.
The thin slice of character Wiggins’s life the novel unveils does not make for much cross-referencing with the writer Wiggins’s life, except as it shows the actual writer’s interest in photography developing as a discipline and art form from the nineteenth century on. Her experience being married to Salman Rushdie and sharing years of his life in hiding when he was declared an enemy of Islam by Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini does not surface directly in the novel. The radical nature of the Islamic threat to their lives and their seclusion echo in the unexpected avalanche that orphans Clara and her brother Hercules, suddenly severing ties with all they know. It is a stretch to force similarities beyond an emphasis on loss, uses of memory, and an interest in photography; no easy correspondences between Wiggins and her character come to mind. Instead, the book braids the contemporary story of character Marianne Wiggins, novelist-screenwriter, with the fascinating life of Edward Curtis, photographer, entrepreneur, husband, and opportunist subject to wanderlust and infatuated with his own ambition.
The novel begins with a cleverly sardonic commentary on driving in Los Angeles. At a meeting with prospective producers, screenwriter Wiggins lays out Curtis’s life, her fascination then disenchantment with him, and the unwinding of his marriage as he photographed Native Americans while employed by J. P. Morgan. She resists the fixation with Curtis as a wandering artist cowboy that the Hollywood producers want to create because it will not capture the truth of his life. It is too simple. The real story that captured her, she tells her agent, is that all four of Curtis’s adult children are buried beside him despite his desertion of them for most of their childhoods. She wrote to discover what made them crave the closeness in death they never achieved in life. The author of The Shadow Catcher narrates the lives of Los Angeles writer Marianne Wiggins and photographer Edward Curtis, both complicated by mysterious disappearances.
Following the meeting, Wiggins receives a phone call informing her that her father is seriously ill in a Las Vegas hospital. The preposterous claim unsettles the writer, whose father had died some thirty years earlier. After contacting her sister to talk things over, she decides to investigate the situation. The reader knows she will be heading to Nevada in her car, the modern equivalent of Huck Finn’s lighting out for the territory.
With the turn of a page the reader is in the Washington Territory with Clara and Hercules. The long chapter is not technically a flashback, because it is woven around Clara’s memories of the Curtis family mingled with her family’s life in St. Paul and descriptions of her present situation, being a charity case in the Curtis household. The reader learns about her loving home and casually elegant parents, whose indulgent and cultured approach to life introduced music, art, and people who loved them into their children’s lives. The reader also learns that Clara attends a nursing academy, expecting to pursue a career.
On a Christmas shopping trip after a snowfall, her parents are tragically killed in an avalanche of snow that falls from a building while Clara and her brother are inside selecting a gift. Their disappearance alters life forever, and the siblings find that they are bankrupt. The only person Clara can imagine helping them is Ellen Curtis, her mother’s longtime friend, a woman inept at managing her own affairs and whom Clara’s parents had aided in the past. Still struggling with the shock, the sister and brother find themselves in a spartan island frontier camp where the Curtis family hangs onto existence through exhausting hard work and sheer nerve. Edward enters the novel as the wandering son of a now dead, wandering father. His mysterious comings and goings, accepted by his family, seem odd and unexplainable to Clara, who feels isolated from civilization and the prospect of finding a school for Hercules. Eventually the section becomes the story of how Edward Curtis and Clara discover their attraction for one another. Clara relishes love because she witnessed her parents’ mutually nurturing marriage.
Clara offers Edward education and a wider lens on the world,...
Barrett, Jesse. 2007. “Imagining Photographer Curtis’ Life.” San Francisco Chronicle Online. Retrieved June 10 from <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/06/10/RVG2QQ44MB1.DTL>. This is a review of The Shadow Catcher.
Dickie, Elizabeth. 2007. “Review of The Shadow Catcher.” Booklist, Vol. 103, No. 17, p. 75. Dickie offers a brief but positive review of the novel.
Laskin, David. 2007. “The Story of Edward S. Curtis—Sort of.” Seattle Times, June 10, p. L8. Laskin did not appreciate the novel and analyzes its shortcomings.
Smiley, Jane. 2007. “Vanished Past.” Los Angeles Times, June 3, p. R1. Smiley, an accomplished author, discusses Wiggins’s novel.
Smith, Wendy. 2007. “Lighting Out for the Territory.” Washington Post, June 3, p. T5. Wiggins’s novel receives a very good review from Smith.
Timberg, Scott. 2007. “A Place to Use Her Voice: Marianne Wiggins Feels Comfortable in a New Setting That Has Her Inspired Again As a Novelist. It’s California.” LosAngeles Times , June 2, p. E1. This is a long interview with Wiggins.
Woodward, Richard B. 2007. “Double Exposure.” The New York Times Book Review, July 1, p. 11. Woodward finds Wiggins’s novel delightful.
Zipp, Yvonne. 2007. “A Novel Entwined With the Life Story of The Shadow Catcher.” Christian Science Monitor, July 3, p. 13. Zipp enjoyed the story and praises the author for her writing skills.