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The Shadow Catcher

Review

The Shadow Catcher

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 January 23, 2011

The Shadow Catcher
by Marianne Wiggins

  • Publication Date: June 3, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 0743265211
  • ISBN-13: 9780743265218