Anthony Doerr

The Shell Collector

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The Shell Collector Summary

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“The Shell Collector” (2002), a short story by American author Anthony Doerr, tells the story of a blind shell expert living in exile with his dog in Kenya who becomes something of a celebrity after he uses deadly cone venom to cure a local eight-year-old girl of Malaria.

At the start of the story, the unnamed blind shell collector hears a water taxi scrape and damage the coral. Two New York journalists both named Jim greet him and say they’d like to write a story about him. The collector doesn’t like the New Yorkers much, but he answers their questions politely and truthfully.

Here, the reader begins to learn the shell collector’s history too. Growing up in Canada, he shoots caribou with his father until his eyesight starts to go. By the time he reaches an eye specialist in Florida, he’s already blind. But the specialist introduces him to the joys of shell collecting. He goes on to obtain a PhD and become expert in the field. He comes to live in a secluded part of Kenya with his dog, TK, earning an income by sending samples to universities. He has a son named Josh from a now-dissolved marriage who writes to him frequently, but the collector never responds.

One day, he meets Nancy, a Buddhist American woman suffering from malaria. The doctor arrives to treat her; she recovers, though she still falls into fits of shivering every few days. One night, she enters his room and they have sex. After it’s over, she begins to cry and they argue about Josh. The collector leaves to collect shells. When he returns, he finds she’s been hit by a highly deadly cone snail. She suffers paralysis for many hours but when she finally comes to, her malaria is miraculously cured. She begs to be bitten again, but the collector refuses.

Sometime later, a local cleric arrives pleading with the collector to find another cone snail to bite his eight-year-old, malaria-stricken daughter, Seema. The collector adamantly refuses but eventually relents because he doesn’t want the girl’s family members to be bitten as they search the grounds for a cone snail. Like Nancy, Seema recovers.

Word spreads about Seema’s recovery, and suddenly the collector’s home is swamped with visitors with all manner of ailments, from cholera to mental illness, hoping for the cone snail “cure.” The collector refuses them all. The activity dies down to an extent, but the collector still encounters cure-seekers and has also attracted a group of mentally-challenged local boys who now hang around the premises every day.

One day, his thirty-year-old son, Josh, arrives en route to a Peace Corps mission in Uganda. Josh welcomes the attention of the boys, encouraging their budding interest in shell collecting. He convinces the collector to take the boys on a shell-finding excursion. But while on the excursion, Josh is bitten by a cone snail he found beautiful and is dead within an hour. Finally, people leave the shell collector alone again.

Back in the present, the shell collector and “the Jims” visit the town and smoke hashish. When they return to the collector’s home, an intoxicated collector gets bit by a cone snail. He is found a kilometer from his home by Seema, the cleric’s daughter. She helps nurse him back to health. In the final scene, the shell collector encounters a snail that is blind like him.

The Shell Collector is an alternatively hopeful and grim examination of the randomness of nature—the randomness that took away the protagonist’s sight and took his son away from him, but that also cured Nancy and Seema of a devastating illness.