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Vanished past

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Jane Smiley is the author of "Ten Days in the Hills" and many other books.

YOU wouldn’t know from reading “The Shadow Catcher” that Marianne Wiggins is one of our most adventuresome and enterprising novelists, an author who has wrestled time and time again with strange settings, shattering events, questions of survival and its costs. The reason you wouldn’t know has nothing to do with Wiggins’ skills -- “The Shadow Catcher” is both mesmerizing and convincing -- rather, it has to do with Wiggins’ narrative tone, which is simple and friendly, and with her use of herself as a character.

Here she is, just another L.A. author, caught in traffic, pondering America from the left coast. She is late for a lunch with movie people, who wish to film her novel “The Shadow Catcher,” and pretty much ignored when she arrives. Her tone is light -- too knowing to be rueful. She never pulls rank, the way a male author might -- a Cormac McCarthy, say, or a Philip Roth. After lunch, she gets to the novel, which is the story of early 20th century photographer Edward S. Curtis, as told from the point of view of his wife, Clara.

We’ve all seen Curtis’ photographs. Whether they depict Native Americans (especially the peoples of the Northern Plains) or landscapes (Canon de Chelly, the mission church at Acoma Pueblo), we recognize them instantly. They seem to possess some ultimate photographical quality -- true, still and instantaneous -- and therefore to depict something about America that is golden and permanent. Although Curtis intended to make a record of a world that was vanishing, loss is not present in the pictures; for whatever reasons of artistry and technique, they are somehow reassuring, as if just beyond the city limits, or just over the ridge, the world they portrayed still exists.

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But Wiggins does not begin with Curtis; she begins with Clara Phillips in the 1880s, just as Clara loses her parents and her warm and comfortable home in St. Paul, Minn. Her mother is a musician and her father is a portrait painter. As Clara is starting to realize that her parents have bought their comforts at too high a cost, they are killed in a bizarre accident and she and her little brother are forced to seek shelter with her mother’s best childhood friend, Ellen Curtis, in far-off Washington Territory. What Clara finds on their journey by train across the Northern Plains is both startling and invigorating. The Curtises adopt the pair, and Clara falls for Edward, the most attractive but also the strangest member of a strange clan, “a revered but inaccessible cipher on the family’s periphery.” Edward is intensely creative (he sews his own doeskin trousers, for example); he comes and goes according to his own schedule and almost never speaks. Even after several months, Clara isn’t sure he knows her name. But he is charismatic, and when he shows an interest in her, she is lost.

In the meantime, Marianne receives a mysterious phone call from a hospital in Las Vegas, telling her that her father is in the intensive care unit, unconscious and possibly dying. Marianne informs the caller that her father has been dead for more than 30 years, but the mystery persists -- the unconscious John Wiggins has a clipping about her in his wallet and lists her as his next of kin. Although her sister back East is skeptical, Marianne decides to make the drive from Los Angeles to Vegas and investigate. The reader is given to understand that there is more to the death of Marianne’s father than she has communicated thus far, but she does not seem to be withholding information; part of the appeal of her intimate and casual voice is that she will get to all that eventually. Coincidences begin to accumulate, always a challenge for an author, but Wiggins embraces them the way anyone would -- she marvels at them, comments on them, follows them up.

Wiggins has often been praised for her style. Her stories may not always be comfortable -- eight girls shipwrecked, genocide in Eastern Europe, radiation sickness -- but her style is seductive and alluring. In “The Shadow Catcher,” she is pinpoint meticulous in her depiction of Clara Curtis’ point of view, capturing that most elusive of illusions -- the feeling that one is actually experiencing the inner life of someone neither the reader nor the author has ever met. After the startling and beautifully evoked sudden death of her parents, for example, Clara finds herself more than a little disoriented in Dakota Territory: “How could a soul survive out here, she thought, without a mirror, without a printed word, without a line connecting one to mankind’s history, mankind’s self-perpetuating sadness? We’re not made for open spaces, she considered, they humiliate and humble us and make us search for God in granite niches.”

Yet Clara’s inner life is distinct from Marianne’s. Where Clara is cautious, affectionate and sometimes intimidated but must often make herself brave, Marianne is reflective, eager to contemplate open spaces and large thoughts, self-confident in the way that women of our day frequently are. She is by turns inquisitive and kindhearted. She has not only survived but also assimilated her experience and retained -- or regained -- the appetite for adventure that is forced upon Clara and that she eventually loses.

As Marianne drives through Las Vegas to the hospital, her sense of humor is evident. (“Even endangered bats with complicated sonar reflexes cannot resist the Luxor’s artificial highway to heaven, so how are we supposed to feel about it?”) Her first encounter with the new John Wiggins is actually played for laughs. But behind the laughs -- and predating them -- is plenty of sadness and distress, not least in the explanation of who the new John Wiggins is and how he came to supersede the old John Wiggins.

Wiggins circles back to her subject (and it is her perennial subject): How do individuals interact with history? Edward Curtis personified this interaction, not only because he chose to photograph history and his photographs became American history but also because, as an ambitious American man, uninhibited by ties to wife or children, he sought out others who were making history (Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan) and assiduously cultivated his own historical image -- not his reputation as much as his myth.

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Wiggins’ tone, as friendly as it is, is not at all careless. She has an idea to explore as well as a story to tell, and she moves gracefully between the two, never allowing her speculations about the idea to contaminate the authority with which she depicts her characters. Finally, in a small house in Nevada, lives that had seemed disparate in both time and place converge in a way that is both uncanny and plausible -- as simply as they do in a Polaroid photo of a movie star and a Las Vegas doorman, taken one lucky night in the 1970s, then autographed and preserved. Wiggins is too polite to insist that we see the world as she does, but she makes it enchantingly easy to do so.

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