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Book Review: Past, present meet in ‘Shadow Catcher’

“The Shadow Catcher”

by Marianne Wiggins (Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $25)

As Marianne Wiggins’ bold, multifaceted new novel opens, a character also known as Marianne Wiggins considers the power of art in memory: “Some things you remember for a lifetime; other things, mysteriously, bleed away, or fade to shadow.”

She’s referring to a Leonardo da Vinci sketch of an Italian coastal village, drawn from a startling, high perspective: “… I’ve learned to estimate how high above the ground I am, looking from an airplane window. … But how did Leonardo know?”

Wiggins’ perspective for “The Shadow Catcher” is equally lofty and twice as expansive as the novel unfolds across the western plains to the Pacific, illuminating a rugged landscape of myth, hope and disappointment.

Though at times devastatingly enlightening about the American psyche and filled with lovely fragments that snag one’s consciousness, this ambitious work is less likely to linger in memory than we might have hoped. Wiggins is an exacting writer always worthy of our attention, but here too many postmodern contrivances distract from her ruthless, intelligent, gleaming prose.

Author of two collections of short stories and seven novels – including the breathtaking, National Book Award- and Pulitzer-nominated “Evidence of Things Unseen,” about the advent of the nuclear age – Wiggins uses a two-pronged approach to explore the life of the legendary western photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis.

Digging into the photographer’s past in a parallel storyline is the modern-day, fictional Marianne Wiggins, who has written a novel about Curtis and is resisting Hollywood’s attempts to glamorize him. (One producer envisions a Curtis project as “Citizen Kane” meets “Dances With Wolves.”)

This faux Wiggins stumbles into a mystery involving her family, but those personal developments are considerably less interesting than the detailed reconstruction of Curtis’ wife Clara – orphaned early, dependent on the careless generosity of strangers and eventually wedded to disillusion.

She is resistant to the pull of the West that lures her husband: “We’re not made for open spaces, she considered, they humiliate and humble us and make us search for God in granite niches.”

The beautifully rendered Clara gives resonant shape to Wiggins’ musings on the enigmatic Curtis – wayward husband, absent father, acquaintance of Teddy Roosevelt, emblem of a great national restlessness – and leads the author to intriguing insights into sexual politics, the mythology of the West and the relationship between physical and emotional distance.

She strews photographs and the occasional historical document throughout the book, a device that pulls us deeper into contemplation of Curtis’ work. And she searches for meaning in his iconic portraits of Native Americans, and finds it unexpectedly.

“The Shadow Catcher” is full of themes of flight and travel and the ways in which history informs the future. But when its two storylines eventually converge, the final revelations strain plausibility, with coincidence looming as large as any peak in an Ansel Adams poster.

Despite its many majesties, “The Shadow Catcher” offers a few too many elements that we would just as soon forget.


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