The Shadow Catcher's twin
narratives follow the life of photographer Edward S
Curtis (1868-1952) and his wife Clara Philllips
(about whom little is known, giving the author's
creativity free rein); and "Marianne Wiggins",
living in present-day California, who has written a
book about Curtis that has drawn the interest of
In an interview on PBS radio (see sidebar for link), Wiggins explains that she has never written autobiography (although parts of herself do come through in other books) but this time she was drawn to explore the central mystery in her own live - why her father, who she loved very much, disappeared from her life when she was young. The story that has been passed down to her is that, some years after disappearing, her father was found dead in a national park by a milkman, apparently having committed suicide. Unable to verify the truth of this, Wiggins has played with the bare facts as known to her to create the fictionalized modern-day thread of The Shadow Catcher.
I was set to dislike The Shadow Catcher having read a damning review that complained that it contained an excess of implausibilities and symbolic coincidences, and that the two storylines failed to gel into a whole and, most damning of all, that the line between fact and fiction was overly blurred, reinforced by the disclaimer on the opening page that states that "the novel is not intended to be understood as describing real or actual events, or to reflect in any way upon the actual conduct of real people."
In fact, I'm not entirely clear how the book found its way on to my nightstand in the first place but, on balance, I'm glad it did. Certainly, coincidence does play a heavy role in The Shadow Catcher, as it has tended to do in other novels by Wiggins, but the book offers more than enough strongly developed characters and themes to compensate (added to which, Wiggins implies that some of these 'coincidences' are taken from her own life - and as we all know, fact can often be stranger than fiction).
The Shadow Catcher explores multiple themes including identity, the exploitation of native peoples and the human need to create heroes out of ordinary people. The core thematic connection between the two storylines is the mystery of a child's love, even hero-worship, of a largely absent father. Even though for much of their childhood Curtis had been absent from their lives, his children apparently doted on him, engraved his gravestone with the words, "Beloved Father" and chose to be buried near him. In parallel, Marianne Wiggins (both the fictional and real version) lost her beloved father at an early age and, more than thirty years later, still seeks evidence of him.
When categorizing books by genre for BookBrowse I have been struck by the thought that a novel is simply a name for a book that doesn't fit neatly into any one genre. The Shadow Catcher is such a "novel" - combining two parallel storylines, one historical fiction, one contemporary; plus a dollop of autobiography, art criticism (supported by 30 interleaved photos) and travelogue. The result is an intelligent, socially conscious book that defies categorization.
This review was originally published in September 2007, and has been updated for the June 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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