Thursday, April 30, 2020

Learning to See - Book Review

Read an Excerpt
You have seen the photos.  The Migrant Mother.  Desperate families on the move.  Children experiencing abject poverty.  Desolate internment camps.

Migrant Mother (1936)
Credit: Dorothea Lange/Public Domain

You have heard the photographer's name.  Dorothea Lange.  But how many of us know the backstory of how Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn Lange (1895-1965) became one of the most famous documentary photographers of all time?

Dorothea Lange (1936)
Credit: The Library of Congress/No Restrictions

Learning to See is historical fiction that reads like an organic biography.  Elise Hooper used volumes of historical records and interviews to create this compelling memoir-like novel.  Like many based-on-true-life stories, the fiction morphs with the nonfiction into a very realistic portrait of the complex life and times of Dorothea Lange.

We are first introduced to the intrepid twenty-two-year-old Nutzhorn as she arrives in the bohemian San Francisco of 1918.  Having been the victim of a thief who makes off with her life savings, Dorothea must use her wits to secure housing and a job as a photographic assistant.  Before long, the renamed Lange decides to forge her own path as an independent studio photographer.

As things unfold, we discover Dorothea's many evolving iterations: friend, businesswoman, wife, mother, and fearless social activist.  There are elements of Lange's life that some will find upsetting (like choosing to foster out her children during the hard economic times of the Great Depression).  The sacrifices endured for the sake of Lange's calling will have lifelong ramifications.

This is a book for those who appreciate historical fiction, biographies, defining moments in time, photography, or reflections on the human landscape of America.  I couldn't help but see the parallels between the subjects of Lange's Depression Era portraits and those that are beginning to define this current time of economic collapse, migrant oppression, and social injustice.

As a photographer with a connection to our country's unseen and often marginalized individuals, the themes of this book deeply resonate.  For me, Lange's unvarnished look at the real America took me to a place deep within myself that wishes to compassionately acknowledge and respond to the pain of those who are struggling mightily.  We know there are multitudes experiencing the hardest times of their lives at this very moment in our nation's history.

Woman of the High Plains (1938)
Credit: Dorothea Lange/Public Domain
This is not the time to look away.  To peer into the haunting images of Dorothea Lange's America, is to have the opportunity of a lifetime to learn to see and to define who we will become in relationship to, and with, those who are trying to survive, while hoping for a better tomorrow.

I highly recommend this novel and encourage members of book clubs to consider Learning to See as a group selection.  It is sure to generate the kinds of conversations that matter.










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12 comments:

  1. I have heard of Dorothea Lange and must have seen some of her photography before because the ones you have featured here seem familiar. Having heard stories of life during the Great Depression from my father, who as a child was fostered out, I already know, from your wonderful review, that I will find this story fascinating.

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    1. I cannot even imagine what it would feel like to have to place your own children with a foster during hard times. That would be a more than courageous act of love, though I'm sure a lot of those children did not understand. My dad grew up during the Great Depression, also. I know it had a profound impact on who he became as an adult. We were always taught not to waste a thing. I do think you would enjoy this book, since it has personal overtones for you, as well.

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  2. This sounds fascinating and will definately be put on my"to read" list.

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    1. Thanks, Mary Beth. This would be a good one for your book club. So much to dissect and discuss. I think it would generate quite a conversation.

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  3. Women from the past were not often afforded the opportunity to turn their talents into a business & income. When we read or hear stories about the past, we tend to judge individuals by today's society or our own norm. That isn't fair. It is important to understand the norm of a particular time. It sounds like this author does a good job of putting Lange's life in the proper perspective.

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    1. So true. I suspended judgment while considering the lives illuminated in this book (to the degree that it is humanly possible). It's not fair to impose today's standards on those living in another time and place. Dorothea was quite unusual in that she lived much differently than most of the women of her time. She achieved great things because she was not afraid to step outside of the narrow constraints that others sought to impose on her.

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  4. Oh this sounds wonderful and painful at the same time. Those are the kinds of books that make all of us grow, hopefully. Seeing through someone else's eyes can be a wake up call for all of us. Thank you for this great selection for your review, I will have to put this on my list!

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    1. I think every book worth reading has some pain in it. Pain is true to life. There is a balance, though, between the highs and the lows. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Always appreciated.

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  5. Wonderful book review. I enjoy historical fiction and photography. And I've been trying to educate myself more about what folks when through during that era. A lifetime late, my grandmother made decisions based on how hard life was during that time. Such hard times. This is definitely a book I will read. Question: I read on a Kindle paperwhite. Does the book include many photos? (I can't see them well on my version of kindle).

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    1. Thank you. I read this book on my Kindle Paperwhite. It was fine. I think you will find that this book fits very well with your desire to learn more about this critical time in American history. Good to see you here. Your presence is appreciated!

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  6. I KNOW I'd love this book. What a great book to make into a movie as well (assuming that hasn't been done yet). Historical fiction is one of the most popular genre's right now, and this book is a good reason why - sounds like an educational read combined with the art of story telling.

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    1. You will be happy to hear that the screen adaptation rights have been acquired (by an actress who stars in the mega hit series "This Is Us." So, obviously, you are not the only one who thinks this story will be fabulous as a movie. I don't normally read historical fiction, but I sure am glad I found this novel. I know you will enjoy it.

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