"The Shadow Catcher"
(reviewed by Guy Savage JUN 10, 2007)
“There are places so removed from any civilizing germ that when you enter them for the first time you lose your own perspective, drop, like Alice down the rabbit hole, into a history so much deeper that your own that your existence is too meager to make any mark in the historical record.”
Marianne Wiggins’s new novel The Shadow Catcher is constructed like a stack of neatly fitting Russian nesting dolls. There are so many stories in this novel that I can honestly say I have a great deal of admiration for this writer’s talent. The novel begins with the “reimagined” writer Marianne Wiggins attending a lunch meeting with her agent, Jon and a young film producer named Stacey. Marianne is there to sell her novel The Shadow Catcher as a screenplay. The novel is about the life of Edward Curtis, the early 20th Century photographer whose fame lies in his portraits of Native American Indians. While Stacey gushes that Curtis will make a wonderful screen hero, Marianne tries to make it clear that Curtis’s role as a photographer is just one portion of this complicated man’s life. But the more she argues that the idea of Curtis as a heroic figure is problematic, the more the producer is swept away by the pure romance of Curtis’s story. Marianne’s extensive research on Curtis was intended to dispel some of the myths about the man, but the producer is ready to discard the reality of Curtis’s life and reinvent him once more in a story that’s “kind of Citizen Kane meets Dances with Wolves.” This is Hollywood’s version of what passes as history, and Marianne’s argument that Curtis was “a shit to everyone who loved him all his life” is countered with the statement that “geniuses always are.”
Marianne’s frustration is apparent to the reader, but not to the producer. The meeting ends, and Marianne returns home to a telephone message that states her father is dying in a Las Vegas hospital. Marianne, who lost her father many years earlier, knows this is impossible. But whoever is dying in the hospital carries her father’s identification. While in her heart, Marianne knows there must be some confusion, and that it’s probably just a case of identity theft, she decides that she must drive to Vegas and discover just who this imposter is.
The novel slides back and forth between the tales of Edward Curtis’s life and the mystery surrounding the imposter in the Vegas hospital. And the common thread of absent fatherhood ties these two seemingly disparate stories together seamlessly. Just as Marianne marvels that Edward Curtis managed to inspire devotion in the children he shamefully abandoned, her own father’s disappearance and subsequent suicide left irreparable wounds. Everyone seems to assume that Curtis must have had “something wonderful about him,” and that this explains why his children adored him in spite of his behaviour. But Marianne, a survivor of problematic fatherhood, realizes that when it comes to understanding Curtis’s relationship with his children, it’s not so simple:
He became, by disappearing from their daily lives, not a father, but the myth of one, a myth they needed to believe in to survive. And despite his actions, despite all contrary evidence, they needed to sustain that system of belief, even if it meant altering their memory, creating a false memory, a false identity, of who their father really was.
As Marianne delves into the mystery of the imposter, she examines her parents’ married life together, and the idea emerges that knowing and understanding another human being is problematic, and that understanding a parent outside of their prescribed role is impossible.
Blending fact and fiction, The Shadow Catcher is a fine accomplishment. This is an intelligent novel loaded with social commentary that explores identity, parenthood, the exploitation of Native Americans, and the need we all have to create heroes. Edward Curtis was a real photographer, and we’ve probably all seen his work even if we haven’t identified it as such. The novel, which incidentally is the nickname given to Curtis by Native Americans, includes black and white photographs of some of his portraits, and the author’s insightful and illuminating critique of Curtis’s work adds another dimension to this very clever, very original novel.
- Amazon readers rating: from 1 review
Read a chapter excerpt from The Shadow Catcher at SimonSays.com(back to top)
"Evidence of Things Unseen"
(reviewed by Jenny Dressel JUL 3, 2004)
“Somewhere in the heart of North America there is a desert where the heat of several suns has fused the particles of sand into a single sheet of glass so dazzling it sends a constant signal to the moon…The desert’s name is Trinity. One day the sun rose twice there in a single mourning and man saw his face reflected on the underside of Heaven. When the first atomic bomb exploded over the earth that morning, the entire sky broadcast the news. Creation of the universe, that day, was reenacted.”
After I read the above beginning lines of Marianne Wiggins’ book, Evidence Of Things Unseen, I was a little nervous. I found these sentences extremely beautiful and poetic, but the analogy spelled “physics” to me, and I failed physics miserably…twice. But just as in high school, I “showed up” and kept turning the pages of this novel, and found one of the most lovely, heartrending and profound novels I have read in a long time.
The time is 1921- Ray Foster- Fos- returns to Nags Head, North Carolina to study the annual August meteor shower at the beach resort. He has a theory that “creatures who produce their own light don’t emit light randomly.” He takes a vacation from his job in a photography shop in Tennessee to examine the glowing creatures in the Atlantic Ocean and how their glow changes during the meteor shower. Once he proves his theory right, he intends to write an article for a scientific journal, showing his findings.
Fos was always fascinated with light and glow-in-the-dark objects, but he learned much more during his time serving in World War I in Europe. By accident, he ended up helping the chemists and scientists create weapons and items which would help the soldiers. It was imperative during WWI for soldiers to have items to use in the dark of the night. During the war, Fos was injured by mustard gas and had problems with watery eyes for the rest of his life.
On his way to the ocean, his truck stalls near the home of a glass blower and his daughter, Opal. Fos and Opal are taken with each other right away; a love affair begins. After Opal restarts Fos’ truck for him (the wires were damp), he takes Opal to the beach to help him count the falling stars. Opal has an obsession- she likes to count things, anything. They are married days later, and Opal returns to Tennessee with Fos.
Through the rest of their life, Opal, Fos and Fos’ best friend, Flash watch history develop. Wiggins’ wonderful writing gives up glimpses of history through the eyes of normal US citizens. The New Deal, Charles Darwin’s great evolution trial, and the genius of Thomas Edison are all given credence in this novel.
“It was an age of passionate discovery for his generation, Fos would say to her. Not like the age of geographic exploration where individuals wagered their existence on the mapping of the scene, the known world. This was an age of general rapture with the unseen, with harnessing the unseen natural forces to man’s wills and his desires. It was an age of burgeoning belief in science as a structure, a place of worshipable icons, a cathedral. An age of hobbyists- of passionate though part-time scientists…”
After some ingenious twists and turns of fate, both Fos and Opal find themselves working for the Dept. of Defense at a secret location in Oak Ridge Tennessee. Here they are helping to end WWII be creating and manufacturing the atomic bomb. Wiggins once again gives us a glimpse into history, but with the knack of showing ordinary people doing ordinary things. Only the benefit of time makes us aware that what these people were doing was really quite extraordinary.
At times tragic; at times hilarious; and always passionate, Evidence Of Things Unseen is a fabulous novel. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, as well as it should have been. I still haven’t read The Known World (the winner), but I can tell you, it had to be extremely difficult for the judges to choose. Wiggins has drawn her characters with wonderful personality, her prose is truly poetic, and the layers can be peeled back like a wonderful, sweet Southern onion. I have dubbed Marianne Wiggins the “Queen of the Metaphor”- I’m pretty good with clichés, as this review reveals, but this author can draw pictures in your mind with words which are so right on, I find it truly amazing.
She has written a wonderfully powerful story about an aspect of our country’s history that is seldom seen. Her perspective of the time, and the people creating the atomic bomb before and during World War II is extremely thought provoking. I could have spent six months with this book, just analyzing and re-reading beautiful passages. One half love story and one half history- what more could one ask for? This is a truly gorgeous book.
I’ve come to the conclusion that 2003 was a great year for works of historical fiction. I’m not even sure if this book is placed under that category, but it should be. Run; don’t walk to the bookstore and get this book; I promise you won’t be disapopointed.
- Amazon readers rating: from 18 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Evidence of Things Unseen at SimonSays.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Babe (1975)
- Went South (1980)
- Separate Checks (1984)
- Herself in Love and Other Stories (1987)
- John Dollar (1989)
- Bet They'll Miss Us When We're Gone: Stories (1990)
- Eveless Eden (1995)
- Almost Heaven (1998)
- Evidence of Things Unseen (June 2003)
- The Shadow Catcher (June 2007)
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- Wikipedia page on Marianne Wiggins
- Wired for Books Audio Interview with Marianne Wiggins
- Reading Guide for Almost Heaven
- The New York Times review of Almost Heaven
- Reading Guide for Evidence of Things Unseen
- American Booksellers Association interview on Evidence of Things Unseen
- The New York Times review of Evidence of Things Unseen
- Globe and Mail review of Evidence of Things Unseen
- ReviewOfBooks.com collection of reviews for Evidence of Things Unseen
- Reading Guide for The Shadow Catcher
- Washington Post review of The Shadow Catcher
- SF Gate review of The Shadow Catcher
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About the Author:
Marianne Wiggins was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her father, a farmer, preached in a conservative Christian church founded by her grandfather. She married at 17, right after being graduated from Manheim Township High School and promptly gave birth to a daughter, Lara, whom she raised in Martha's Vineyard. Wiggins lived in London for 16 years and briefly in Paris, Brussels and Rome.
She married Salman Rushdie in January 1988. A year later, while on a book tour in the US, the couple learned taht Ayatollah Khomeini had ordered Rushdie killed. They live in 56 different safe houses, under the protection of the British government. Sixe month later she took a flat under an assumed name. In 1993, they divorced.
She is a recipient of a Whiting Award, an NEA grant, and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and she was a National Book Award finalist in fiction for Evidence of Things Unseen. The scientific information that informs Evidence of Things Unseen is entirely self-taught and the result of five years of research.
She lives in Los Angeles, Californi and teaches at the University of Southern California.