The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr is a debut collection of eight wonderful stories. Each focuses on an unlikely modern hero, often it is about a man who cuts himself off from society and detached even from himself. The displacement serves as an impetus to bring him in closer contact with the forces of nature and deeper into his inner self.
Nature is an important part of Doerr’s story. The thick green forests and whispering shores, cold rivers and jungles offer refreshment away from the pressures of contemporary society and popular culture. In their place are starker universal confrontations with fellow man and the self. In fact, Doerr’s stories are full of mythic elements.
The most powerful and haunting tale among the Shell Collector story is “The Caretaker”. This story essays the life of a man named Joseph Saleeby. He is a refugee from the Liberian civil war who loses his mother and his way of life. He survives the terrifying carnage in his homeland and found himself washed upon the shores of Oregon. Joseph started anew by working as a caretaker for a summer home of rich people who have “something to do with computers,”. But as the days dragged on, he found himself unable to do his job as the millionaire’s houseboy because the horrors he experienced in the civil war prevented him to do so.
Joseph Saleeby is a man drowning in memories of hatcheted limbs and bloody bodies. He is broken, haunted by the violent real-life nightmares that drove him from his home. He witnessed “decapitated children, drugged boys tearing open a pregnant girl, a man hung over a balcony with his severed hands in his mouth” as well as “rape, murder, an infant kicked against a wall, a boy with a clutch of dried ears suspended from his neck”. Such were the images that filled his memory.
One day he found himself confronted by the sight of six beached whales. Joseph witnesses the beaching of five whales on the Oregon coast. In a moving act that stems from guilt and repentance, the refugee buries the hearts of the dead whales. Those gigantic organs though do not seem large enough to cover the broadness of his grief. He compulsively buries the beached whales’ hearts in a brave attempt to lay his own demons to rest. The ritualized burial of the hearts of five beached whales, which were wash up on shore the same way Joseph did, had somehow revived him.
Joseph loses his job. He stays though to cultivate the plot of land on top the hearts. Joseph Saleeby found the peace he sought in hiding, tending a garden fertilized by the huge remains of a beached whale. He befriended the deaf and depressed daughter of the house’s owners. His relationship with the deaf daughter, Belle, is almost telepehatic. He seems to know instantly what is going on with Belle. So much so that he is able to rescue her from suicide.
Together, Joseph and Belle, search for redemption in the garden they cultivated. Their cautious, new friendship formed from the unfortunate circumstance also buoyed them from their inner struggles. His sense of life comes back to him in a dazzling way as he sees his garden germinates: “By mid June the stems of his plants are inches high..the buds have separated into delicate flowers; what looked like a solid green shoot was actually a tightly folded blossom. He feels like shouting with joy”. Joseph’s psychological self-preservation that comes from burying the hearts of five beached whales becomes complete when he eats a melon grown from the fertilized soil. This is probably the most moving passage of the story.
The story depicts isolation, confrontation with the self and redemption through nature. An interesting moral of the story is that humans can never escape the power of nature — their own or the earth’s — however civilized they may be as depicted by Joseph’s empathy with the beached whales and ensuing bond with Belle.
From the story, it can be gleaned that misfits make the strongest connections because they have to struggle for a sense of identity, empathy, and a common language. Joseph and Belle’s are the misfits. Their friendship stems from their common need to be understood. Inside them are the inner demons they want to get rid of. Both are haunted by a sense of loneliness and isolation in their struggles. And because of their common plight, an instantaneous and silent bond formed between them. They created the strongest bond out of need not out of luxury. They need each other’s help to be able to direct their path to the right direction. Theirs is a bond formed out of their need to find themselves. They can instant empathize because their experiences teach them to look beyond the façade. They could understand what the other is going through without being told as depicted by the almost telepathic relationship between Joseph and Belle. The language that binds them is the language of the heart which does not really require much expression. A sense of understanding between them suffices.