PW Best Books 2012: Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan

Sam Slaton -- October 23rd, 2012

Leading up to the November 5th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2012, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100. Here’s the latest post:

I know nothing about Native Americans. No matter that I grew up next door to what was officially Indian Territory till the incorporation of Oklahoma as the 46th state in 1907 (quite the latecomer considering its central location). Of course I’d learned about Sacagawea and Thanksgiving and maize (which I dismissed back in elementary school in Arkansas as simply the wrong word for corn), but besides that, Indians were merely what my fellow Boy Scouts dressed up as at the end of Scout Camp. They built those mounds for some reason. They owned that casino I wound up at late one night after a wrong turn out of Fort Smith. Tax-free smoke shops for cheap dip and cigarettes.

It’s a shame, really, and I’ve lamented it often—Why didn’t we learn anything in high school? How could they, like, not teach us about INDIANS? Always with a pitiful mix of indignation and a tacit refusal to do anything about it. An education involving Indians was something I felt had been owed me as a child, and I didn’t get it, and now I was old enough and smart enough to bemoan my ignorance. (Thanks, college!) I knew there were books out there, but I never sought them out.

That is, until I picked up Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, the newest from Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winner Timothy Egan. From the first sentence, I was hooked like I’ve never been before:

The last Indian of Seattle lived in a shack down among the greased piers and coal bunkers of the new city, on what was then called West Street, her hovel in the grip of Puget Sound, off plumb in a rise above the tidal flats.

The prose practically drips with the sibilance of the wet Pacific Northwest, angled here and there with fricative rumors of the clash between city and soil, new and old. Like his subject, the renowned yet largely forgotten photographer Edward R. Curtis—self-made man, friend of President Teddy Roosevelt, beneficiary of J.P. Morgan, visionary and driving force behind the 30-year, 20-volume The North American Indian, a stunning work of anthropology, history, and ethnology which the art critic Delores Tarzan Ament esteems as being to photography “what Wagner’s Ring Cycle is to opera”—Egan is a master of his medium. His prose expertly mimics Curtis’ personal and professional development (and the slow coming together of his life’s work), just as Joyce did with his artist—from the ease of “a moocow coming down along the road” to the turmoil of “INTER UBERA MEA COMMORABITUR,” and on into the final stretch of numbered days. The writing is ebullient and vivacious as Curtis undertakes his enormous project (to photographically and textually document every native tribe of the United States and Alaska before their traditions and customs were lost forever), and as he enters into the third decade of work—financially ruined, his marriage in shambles, the First World War come and gone—the sentences put their heads down and get to work in a desperate bid to finish what they started. That might seem high praise for a work of nonfiction, but once again subject and scribe have something in common: a belief that a story must be told accurately, honestly, and beautifully—even if it’s true.


I still don’t know much about Indians—how could I after reading just one book about a rare 20-volume tome that covers less than a quarter of the hundreds of federally recognized tribal entities? Native American history remains, for me, primarily terra incognita. But the same went for Curtis back in 1896 when he took that first, gripping picture of Princess Angeline, “the last Indian of Seattle.” That portrait, and Egan’s tale of the man who made it, are mere glimpses—however brilliant in their own right—of much greater vistas.

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