I love serendipity — both the word and the occurrence. The word trills off the tongue and the happenstance re-awakens a sense of magic.
Recently the Ottawa Library received the book “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The epic life and immortal photographs of Edward Curtis,” by Timothy Egan, winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.
At the end of the 19th century, photographer Edward Curtis realized that the traditional life of the American Indian was being decimated, and he made it his mission to capture as much about their traditional and ceremonial life as possible. For the next 30 years, he followed his vision over the western landscape, ultimately producing 40,000 photographs, 10,000 audio recordings and the first documentary film, creating a definitive Native American archive. The last of his 20 volumes of work was published in 1930. Deep in the Great Depression, the country paid little attention. Curtis, once backed by Theodore Roosevelt and funded by railroad financier J.P. Morgan, was destitute, divorced and ignored.
Now, though, Curtis’s photographs fetch steep sums at auction, and many of those who now know of him see him as a visionary.
Shortly after the arrival of Egan’s book, we got another: “The Shadow Catcher,” named a Best Book of the Year by the National Books Critics Circle and other respected newspapers and journals. Marianne Wiggins’ book is part fiction, part memoir and part biography.
The main character is, yes, named Marianne Wiggins. She has written a popular novel about Edward Curtis which has, with its epic story, caught the attention of Hollywood moviemakers. Now the film buzz has quieted and Marianne is examining her options when she receives word that her father, long believed dead, was alive and in the hospital. Alternated with Marianne’s story are chapters from a historical novel about Edward’s wife, Clara Curtis.
Marianne’s story, her Curtis novel, and Clara’s history entwine as Marianne discovers new and unexpected information on both Curtis and her father. Interspersed throughout are photographs by Curtis and from Wiggins’ own collection, which both illustrate and obfuscate the story’s already mysterious line between truth and fiction.
The novel itself depends somewhat on serendipity, and the arrival of both of these excellent books in such a timely manner qualifies as serendipitous for me.
Heidi van der Heuvel is a librarian at the Ottawa Library.