The Omnivorous Reader
A fanciful dealer in dark wares
By D.G. Martin
When Fred Chappell writes, multitudes of fans stop and read. Now retired, he was for more than 40 years a beloved teacher of writers at UNCG, where he helped establish its much-admired Master of Fine Arts in Writing program. He served as North Carolina poet laureate from 1997 until 2002. He is revered by many for his fiction, especially his early works based on his years growing up in the mountains. But his 30 some-odd books show his determination not to be limited to any genre, geography or time.
His latest book, A Shadow All of Light, demonstrates the wide scope of his imagination and talent. It is a magical, speculative story set in an Italianate country hundreds of years ago. Chappell asks his readers to believe that shadows are something more than the images people cast by interrupting a light source. These shadows are an important, integral part of a person’s being. They can be stolen or given up. When lost, the person is never the same.
In Chappell’s tale, an ambitious young rural man, Falco, comes to a big port city (think Venice), where he attaches himself to a successful shadow merchant, Maestro Astolfo. Over time Falco learns the trade of acquiring and selling shadows detached from their original owners. The business is a “shady” one because the acquisition of human shadows often involves underhanded, even illegal methods, something like today’s markets in exotic animal parts or pilfered art.
But Maestro Astolfo and Falco, notwithstanding public attitudes, strive to conduct their business in a highly moral manner. Although losing one’s shadow could be devastating, the situation is mollified if a similar replacement can be secured from shadow dealers like Astolfo or Falco.
Chappell, in the voice of Falco, explains, “No one likes to lose his shadow. It is not a mortal blow, but it is a wearying trouble. If it is stolen or damaged, a man will seek out a dealer in umbrae supply and the difficulty is got around in the hobbledehoy fashion. The fellow is the same as before, so he fancies, with a new shadow that so closely resembles his true one, no one would take note.
“That is not the case. His new shadow never quite fits him so trimly, so comfortably, so sweetly as did his original. There is a certain discrepancy of contour, a minor raggedness not easy to mark but plainly evident to one versed in the materials. The wearer never completely grows to his new shadow and goes about with it rather as if wearing an older brother’s hand-me-down cloak.
“Another change occurs also, not in the fitting or wearing, but in the character of the person. To lose a shadow is to lose something of oneself. The loss is slight and generally unnoticeable, yet an alert observer might see some diminishing in the confidence of bearing, in the certitude of handclasp, in the authority of tread upon a stone stairway.”
After introducing his readers to the complexities of shadow theft, storage and trade, Chappell takes Falco, Astolfo and their colleague Mutano through a series of encounters with bandits, pirates and a host of other shady characters. Mutano loses his voice to a cat. Bandits challenge Falco’s efforts to collect rare plants that eat human shadows. Pirates led by a beautiful and evil woman battle the port city’s residents for control.
Similar to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Chappell’s A Shadow All of Light is fast-paced, mythic, and unbelievably entertaining. OH
D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.