The Shell Collector: Stories (2002)

by Anthony Doerr

Critical Evalulation

“Reading Anthony Doerr’s fine first collection of stories is like eavesdropping on a group of people who are standing at a picture window inventing tall tales about the wilderness they see outside. But while the perspectives of the characters in ‘The Shell Collector’ range widely, from a lonely New England teenager to a Liberian refugee in Oregon, two themes unite the book’s storytelling: hunting and being hunted, holding on and letting go.

In one story, an outdoorsman from Montana falls in love with a magician’s assistant who has the power to read dreams and see the souls of dying animals. In another, a spirited Idaho high-school girl visits a carnival at the state fair and runs away with a man billed as a metal eater, who amazes his audience by eating half a dozen razors. Elsewhere, a fossil hunter sent to find the remains of a prehistoric bird in Tanzania falls in love with a girl who can be wooed only by chasing her through the forest. And in the title story, a blind Canadian shell collector living on the coast of Kenya stumbles on the dark side of a miracle: the venom from a certain cone shell heals the sick, but it can also kill the well.

Doerr’s prose dazzles, his sinewy sentences blending the naturalist’s unswerving gaze with the poet’s gift for metaphor. And it does so from the very beginning, opening with such a sensual description of shells that it’s almost a shock to discover, a page later, that the character ‘seeing’ them is blind. As this nameless man feels ‘the sleek egg of its body, the toothy gap of its aperture,” he is awed by a shell’s elegance. Pondering the intricacies of its design, he concludes that ‘ignorance was, in the end, and in so many ways, a privilege: to find a shell, to feel it, to understand only on some unspeakable level why it bothered to be so lovely.’ ”

Willard, Nancy “Rivers Run Through It.” The New York Times. March 3, 2002.

First Excerpt

“Dorotea San Juan, a fourteen year old in a brown cardigan. The
janitor’s daughter. Walks with her head down, wears cheap sneakers,
never lipstick. Picks at salads during lunch. Tacks maps to her
bedroom walls. Holds her breath when she gets nervous. Years of
being the janitor’s daughter teach her to blend in, look down, be
nobody. Who’s that? Nobody.

“Dorotea’s dad is fond of saying this: A man only gets so many
chances. He says it now, after dark, in Youngstown, Ohio, as he
sits on Dorotea’s bed. And says this also: This is a real
opportunity for us. His hands open and close. He grabs at air.
Dorotea wonders about ‘us.’

“Shipbuilding, he says. A man only gets so many chances, he says.
We’re moving. To the sea. To Maine. Place called Harpswell. Soon as
school’s out.

“Shipbuilding? Dorotea asks.

“Mama’s all for it, he says. Least I think she is. Who wouldn’t be
all for it?

“Dorotea watches the door shut behind him and thinks that her
mother’s never been all for anything. That her father has never
once owned, rented or mentioned any kind of boat.”

Second Excerpt

“Dorotea turns back, shades her eyes, sees the mist breaking. To her
left, a gliding green current, a river mouth. To the right, trees
lining the sea edge. Five hundred yards or so down the coast she
sees a rocky point.

“She walks to it; her sneakers bend to steep rock. Occasionally she
has to step into the sea, water eddying around her knees, cold salt
stinging thighs. Sea mud sliding underfoot. A rag of mist descends
and she loses sight of the point. In a place the rock is steep and
she wades to get around it. The water rises above her waist, shocks
her belly. Finally the rock climbs back on an upslope, her feet dig
in, and she climbs up, mud in her fingers and salt drying already
on her skin, legs lifting her dripping out onto the shelf of rock.
The point still half-obscured in mist.

“She shades her eyes, again takes in the ocean. Are there dolphins
out there? Sharks? Sailboats? She sees no sign of them. Of
anything. Is ocean merely rock and weed and water? Mud? She had not
expected emptiness, flittery light, a blotted horizon. Waves march
in from some obscure haze. For a terrifying moment she can imagine
herself the only organism on the planet. And she is about to go

“Then she sees the fisherman. Just to her left. Wading. As if he
came from nowhere. From nothing. From the sea itself.

“She watches him. Feels lucky to watch. The world peeled back and
left with only this vision. This silent flying wizardry. The rod
seems an extension of his arm, an extra and perfect appendage, his
shoulder pivoting, his bare brown chest, his legs tapering to
calves buried in the sea. So this is Maine, this is how it can be,
she thinks. This fisherman. This grace.”