A novel intertwined with the life story of 'The Shadow Catcher'

The life of legendary photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis is the starting point for Marianne Wiggins's new novel.

Screenwriters often dream of pitching their ideas to Hollywood producers, but it's a safe bet that their fantasies are nothing like the pitch meeting attended by Marianne Wiggins.

For one thing, the Los Angeles writer shows up 40 minutes late with lipstick on her teeth. For another, she seems determined to talk the production company out of adapting her novel, "The Shadow Catcher," about legendary Western photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis.

So opens The Shadow Catcher, by, er, Marianne Wiggins. (In addition to sharing names with her main character, the real Wiggins has given the fictional novel the same title as her own.) It's easy to forgive this bit of metaindulgence, as the novel is in all other respects a wonderfully written examination of family and memory, with poetic meditations on everything from Route 66 to Leonardo da Vinci.

Curtis spent the years between 1900 and 1919 in the Western United States, photographing every single tribe, trying to create a historical record before (as he mistakenly thought) native Americans vanished from the landscape. His motives sound noble, and he certainly crafted the legend of himself as carefully as he did his portraits.

Somewhat less than heroic

"How could someone who looks like this and risks his life to make gorgeous images of Indians not be perfect for a movie?" the female producer asks when the fictional Marianne tries to dissuade her. "How tall was he?"

Wiggins has to explain: "Curtis didn't risk his life finding them – he paid the Bureau of Indian Affairs a fee to photograph inside the reservations, that he drove to, in most cases, in his car."

He also, as she points out, had his subjects wear historically inaccurate garb and retouched his photos to erase modern inventions such as cars, zippers, and alarm clocks (all no-nos by today's standards). What is most heartbreaking about the portraits is that he paid native Americans to pose as warriors at a time when they were prisoners on reservations.

"My point," Wiggins explains to the producer (who cares less about ethical lines than the fact that Curtis knew both J.P. Morgan – who paid Curtis $75,000 to finance his project – and Teddy Roosevelt), "is these photographs have been constructed for a purpose. An artistic purpose, yes – they're beautiful to look at. But they're lies. They're propaganda." (Curtis was also a careless husband and an absentee father, who went for years without returning home to Seattle. His youngest child was 18 before he met her.)

Despite her best efforts, Marianne still finds herself with the job. She returns home to find she has another shadow to catch. A Las Vegas hospital has called to say that her father has been admitted after a heart attack and she is listed as next of kin. Only, as Marianne tries to explain to the uncomprehending bureaucrat, her dad died 30 years ago.

Unable to let the matter rest, Marianne heads for Nevada and an examination of Curtis's past and her own.

From Marianne's story to Clara's

"The Shadow Catcher" jumps between Marianne's journey and that of Curtis's long-suffering wife, Clara, who traveled from St. Paul, Minn., to Seattle after her parents died in a freak accident and Curtis's mother, Ellen, offered to take in Clara and her younger brother.

Once in Seattle, Clara falls hard for the young Edward, "the way a very bad sneeze can knock a person sideways." In Las Vegas, Marianne solves the mystery of her father and discovers a link to Curtis.

The plot is interesting, but it's Wiggins's ruminations that make for such fascinating reading. Take a map Leonardo da Vinci drew of an Italian coastal town, as seen from the sky. "It's the view an airplane affords … but how did Leonardo know? Are we hard-wired, as a species, to imagine flying?... Maybe we are built to reconnoiter from above, survey the Earth from heaven, dream of flying. Maybe it's the angel in us."

Even a discussion on celebrity culture yields gems, as when Wiggins compares the Westerns that dominated the screen in the 1950s and today's shows such as "CSI:" and "24": "Sometimes we get the heroes we deserve but we always get the television shows our fears dictate."

Wiggins is also able to conjure up a character in one or two sentences, as when Clara describes Ellen Curtis: "Squat, pale, timid, her mother's friend had always reminded Clara of that ewe in every herd that manages, through her own passive stupidity, to strangle herself in a fence. A tragic character, but without the heroism."

Curtis's photos are reproduced throughout "The Shadow Catcher," along with other photos that are interwoven with the plot. A snapshot of Marianne's parents in their youth is as poignant as any of Curtis's iconic portraits. "There he sits with his Greek wife and his Greek Army buddy. And for a couple moments every day it doesn't matter to me how their stories ended. Because This is who we are, their faces say.

And we are happy."

According to conventional wisdom, a picture is worth roughly 1,000 words. In "The Shadow Catcher," the assessed value is considerably higher. And what words they are.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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