Anthony Doerr was not on my list of books to read while I travel around the world. He is, after all, an American who lives in Idaho, a place that did not figure on our itinerary. But when I found his short story collection, The Shell Collector, on the shelves of our New Zealand AirBNB, I couldn’t resist.
The well-thumbed pages spoke of other, happy readers. I adored his novel, the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning All the Light We Cannot See. And so I dived into this collection of 8 short stories, with no idea what to expect.
Not unlike the character Ward Beach in the final story of Doerr’s collection. The American anthropologist woos the Tanzanian wild child Naima by agreeing to her challenge: can you catch me? She runs into the night and he follows her around boulders, through mud, to the edge of a bluff, a dead end.
Behind was the way he had come. Ahead waited what looked like nothing, space, a spiral of constellations reflected and real, and the hiss and splash of water on rocks somewhere far below.
A star fell from the sky; then another. Blood ticked in his ears. He leaned over the precipice, and although he could see nothing but those distant pinholes in the darkness, he felt a confidence, a resolution, and closed his eyes and stepped forward.Anthony Doerr, “Mkondo” in The Shell Collector (4th Estate 2002)
Into the Wild
As a child, Doerr wrote stories about mollusks, his Playmobile figures, and a boy who skips school. But it never occurred to him to dream of becoming a writer. For one, it was a pretentious thing to say in rural Ohio. For another, Doerr had no role models.
[B]ecause the writers I brought home from the library were all superworldly like Paul Bowles or superfamous like Gabriel García Márquez or superdead like Sarah Orne Jewett, and I was not worldly or famous or dead. Writers seemed a rare and exalted species; I figured I had as much of a chance of growing up to be one as I did of growing up to be a blue whale.Anthony Doerr on Throwing Out All the Rules on Writing a Short Story in Literary Hub, 30 Sept 2019
In May 2001, Doerr publishes his first short story in The Atlantic. It’s about a hunter who makes his living by taking city slickers into the wild to fish for trout or bag a bull elk. He meets a woman with a talent for seeing the dreams of the dead: a freshly eviscerated doe or a woman killed in a car accident.
When he looked out the cabin window, he saw wolf tracks crossing the river, owls hunting from the trees, six feet of snow like a quilt ready to be thrown off. She saw burrowed dreamers nestled under the roots against the long twilight, their dreams rippling into the sky like auroras.
With love still lodged in his heart like a splinter, he married her in the first muds of spring.“The Hunter’s Wife”
Being a city slicker myself, I don’t know much about hunting or, for that matter, fishing. Poles, it seems, are for bait fisherman and bait makes fishing easy. Rods and ties are for fly fishing, the only elegant way to go. All this, Dorotea San Juan learns when her family moves from Youngstown, Ohio to Harpswell, Maine.
Dorotea trembles at the idea of ocean nearing. Fidgets in her seat. The energy of a caged fourteen-year-old piling up like marbles on a dinner plate.“So Many Chances”
In “July Fourth”, geriatric American anglers take on a challenge from some rude Brits. Land the largest freshwater fish or parade naked through New York City’s Time Square. The Americans are, of course, confident. They would not lose, they could not lose; they were Americans, they had already won. Fishing, to Doerr, is a calling, a religion, a way to come to terms with the world around you.
This, he thinks, might as well be winter: stony skies, crows tearing apart old trees, the ravening questions of owls, the round faces of ponds filmed with ice. Soon the trout and salmon will retreat to deepest pools and hang over the pebbled bottoms, motionless, unblinking, while the river kinks in ice-bound channels and freezes above them. Mulligan will retreat too, putter in his basement, tie flies by lamplight.“A Tangle by Rapid River”
All this fishing and hunting and outdoors life feels quite far away from the world of All the Light We Cannot See. The line that connects the two works is the theme of blindness. The protagonist of the title story, “The Shell Collector”, is a malacologist, an expert in the study of mollusks. At age 12, he falls in love with mollusks at the same time he learns that there will be no cure for his blindness.
His fingers dug the shell up, he felt the sleek egg of its body, the toothy gap of its aperture. It was the most elegant he’d ever held. “That’s a mouse cowry,” the doctor said. “A lovely find. It has brown spots, and darker stripes at its base, like tiger stripes. You can’t see it, can you?”
But he could. He’d never seen anything so clearly in his life.“The Shell Collector”
I couldn’t quite believe that. Nor did it seem plausible to me that a blind man, however expert he might be, could plod about in a tidal pool full of potentially fatal shellfish without any risk to himself. While I was reading, I kept comparing the blind shell collector to Doerr’s superior creation, the blind Marie-Laure LeBlanc in All the Light We Cannot See.
An unfair contest, perhaps, and one Doerr cannot win (or lose). But what a leap of faith by a boy from rural Ohio who thought he couldn’t become a writer.
8 February 2020 | Karen Kao