Performing Archive

Historical Fiction; Curtis as Canvas

Beatrice Schuster, Scripps College

Marianne Wiggins’ historical fiction novel The Shadow Catcher would seem to be a world away from anonymous users’ YouTube comments, but Wiggins also used Curtis’ photography as a route for exploring her own identity. She reproduces many of Curtis' photographs throughout the novel, but never provides any descriptions or captions for them. Wiggins completely decontextualizes the photos, instead using them as icons or symbols for her own identity project. 

She composed her novel with two alternating stories: one follows Clara, the young woman who would become Edward S. Curtis’ wife, and the other follows a woman – a semi-fictional “Marianne Wiggins” – as she writes and pitches a novel about Edward Curtis (it’s all very meta). Just as she uses biographical information about Curtis to construct the “Clara” chapters, Wiggins uses her own family history to construct the others. 

She also connects her character’s personal life to Curtis’ throughout the novel, highlighting that his gravesite is in Los Angeles where the character “Marianne” lives 1 and commenting that “Curtis’s own father was my great-grandfather’s contemporary and had fought beside him in the Civil War” 2. Ultimately, the two storylines converge when Marianne’s character discovers that a man named Curtis Edwards has assumed her dead father’s identity. She also meets a Native American named “Owns His Shadow” whose father worked with Curtis. Ultimately, Wiggins’ meditation on Curtis’ life and work allows her to discover more about herself. In the last chapter, she promises “Owns His Shadow” she will go on a “Vision Quest” with him, using Native American practices to discover herself. Wiggins, like the Youtube commenters, projects her character’s concerns, beliefs, and values onto Native American iconography through Curtis.

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