Marianne Wiggins’s novel The Shadow Catcher (2007) has been praised for its poetic writing and its unusual form. In regards to the form, the novel is, in part, a work of fiction about fiction. At the same time, it is also a fictionalized account of real people. Another unique characteristic of this book is that the author includes photographic portraits of real people as if she were writing a biography. Unless readers have completed in-depth research of their own, however, they will not know where truth ends and fiction begins.
The story begins with a character named Marianne Wiggins (the same as the author’s name). After a brief introduction to this character (who also shares many characteristics with the author), this thread of the story is temporarily dropped. The story turns to the focused topic, the photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952). Curtis was famous for his attempts to capture the lives of turn-of-the-century Native Americans.
There are many unanswered questions about Curtis’s life, and Wiggins attempts to answer them through a combination of research and fictive rendition. Wiggins has said that she wrote The Shadow Catcher to get behind the myth of Curtis—to find the truth of his life. But as the book comes to an end, the author concludes that, in fact, the truth about anyone’s life is elusive.
Although the two stories in this novel are separated by more than one hundred years, they are intricately entwined. The main story about Curtis is told mostly through his wife, Clara. Readers witness Clara’s development from a young, single woman to a wife and struggling mother. Wiggins paints Clara as a somewhat saintly figure who supports her husband no matter how badly he treats her. It is Clara who builds a myth around her husband, hoping to instill in her children a love for their often-absent father.
In the other part of the story, the character Marianne meets a Native American man whose father knew Curtis. This is when unsuspected details come to the surface that deepen Marianne’s understanding of Curtis and provide her with a better understanding of her own life and relationships.
The author places herself (or a character with the name Marianne Wiggins, who is a novelist and has written a book called The Shadow Catcher) into parts of her story, which takes place in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. At the start of the novel, Marianne (the character) is having lunch with executives from the film industry. They are interested in adapting Marianne’s novel into a film script. Later, at home, Marianne receives a phone call from a nurse in a Las Vegas hospital who tells Marianne that her father has had a heart attack and is not expected to live. Marianne is flabbergasted as she tells the nurse that her father died (by suicide) many years ago. However, Marianne is curious about the imposter and decides to drive to Las Vegas to see him. The story then switches centuries and main characters. The character Marianne has become fascinated with Edward Curtis, and she begins to tell his story. She starts with Clara, the young woman who will become Edward Curtis’s wife. Clara, whose parents were killed in a bizarre accident, has recently moved in with the Curtis family. The Curtises, old friends of Clara’s parents, live across the Puget Sound region in late nineteenth-century Washington. Mr. Curtis is off looking for gold. Mrs. Curtis is a bit feebleminded. Eva, Edward Curtis’s younger sister, is obviously jealous of Clara. Edward’s brother, Asahel, is secretly in love with Clara. Edward...
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himself is rarely ever at home. He prefers the wilderness. When he is home, he hardly speaks to anyone and spends most of his time passionately and obsessively absorbed with the perfection of his photography skills. After a very strange and very brief courtship, Edward asks Clara to marry him. Edward tells Clara that he needs her, which really means that he needs Clara’s help in establishing his dream of running a portrait studio. Unfortunately, their marriage is a one-sided relationship, with Clara making all the sacrifices. Eventually, the young couple and the rest of Edward’s family move across the Sound to Seattle. Clara and Asahel do most of the work in the studio while Edward takes photographs during his frequent mountain treks. In the meantime, Marianne, in the twenty-first-century part of the story, goes to Las Vegas, where she finds the man who is claiming to be her father. The man is black; Marianne is white. There is no family connection. However, there is a coincidental connection that Marianne later discovers. She meets Lester, a Navajo Indian, who brought the man claiming to be her father to the hospital. The man was trying to sell an Indian artifact to Lester when he had a heart attack. Lester refuses to leave the hospital until either the doctors release the man or the man dies. The man is unconscious, and there is little hope for his recovery. When the story returns to Curtis, readers find Clara at her wits’ end. She and Curtis now have four children; Curtis has run up a substantial debt; Asahel has left after a fight with his brother; and Clara has been left to raise the children, run the studio, and take care of Curtis’s mother and sister. When Clara finally has authorities arrest Curtis for lack of child support as he is passing through Seattle, the older children turn their backs on Clara. Later, with all the children grown, Clara learns that her brother, Hercules, has died. Feeling totally isolated and unsupported, Clara takes a boat out on the Sound, and later her body is discovered in the water. Back in Las Vegas, Marianne and Lester find out where the unconscious man in the hospital lives. They go through some of his belongings and find a picture of his son. They also find a newspaper clipping that tells of this same man having found Marianne’s father after her father had hung himself twenty or more years ago. Other interesting details are revealed. Some of the Indian artifacts that the man’s landlady owns were made by Lester’s father and given to none other than Edward Curtis. The landlady offers another piece of the puzzle to Edward’s life. He used to live in one of the landlady’s houses in Las Vegas. Edward lived there with his lover, the landlady’s uncle. Marianne, now that she is involved in the stranger’s life, decides to try to find the man’s son. As it turns out, the son is a colonel in the military, working not too far away on a base in the middle of the Nevada desert. She tells him where his father is. Then the son fills in some of the circumstances surrounding her own father’s suicide.