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A Photographer's Life, Slow to Develop

By Wendy Smith,
who reviews regularly for Book World.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

TO CATCH THE LIGHTNING

A Novel of American Dreaming

By Alan Cheuse

Sourcebooks. 502 pp. $25.95

Best known as the lucid book reviewer on NPR's "All Things Considered," Alan Cheuse is also a veteran novelist who in such works as "The Bohemians: John Reed and His Friends Who Shook the World" and "The Light Possessed" (an imagined autobiography of Georgia O'Keeffe) has rooted his fiction in historical fact. Cheuse again draws inspiration from the past in his new novel about photographer Edward S. Curtis, who devoted his life to crafting images that preserved the traditional culture of Native Americans.

"So, sing in me, O Muse!" Cheuse writes in the first chapter, an invocation laying out the themes that will be relentlessly traced throughout. "Sing in me of Edward Sheriff Curtis . . . of his great quest and adventures, of his heroic yearnings to make known the faces and songs and souls of the First Americans before they faded into Time, and of the cost to his marriage, to his family, to his spirit, and to his life." That bombastic tone will recur, as the author takes pains at every opportunity to inform us that this is important stuff and Curtis is a man with a mission.

Although the prologue promises "a new sort of tale, a peculiarly American form," Cheuse's attitude is actually quite conventional, at times generic. "To Catch the Lightning" is carefully thought out and well written, but compared with Marianne Wiggins's dazzlingly idiosyncratic recent novel about Curtis, "The Shadow Catcher," it seems stodgy and a trifle dull.

The sketch of Curtis's early adulthood at the turn of the 20th century is a skillful but standard portrait of an ambitious young man unsatisfied by his successful career and restless in domesticity. (His wife, Clara, is stereotyped as the spouse who Just Doesn't Understand.) When Curtis takes one of his frequent walks along the beach to get away from the crowded Seattle household containing his mother, mother-in-law and sister-in-law as well as Clara and the kids, the ensuing epiphany also sounds familiar. He observes an Indian woman digging for clams and decides to take her photograph, a far cry from his professional, commercial portraits. "Their eyes met. Deep and deep and deeper -- he saw far into her foreign soul." The encounter with the Other is a fiction staple, and Cheuse follows a well-worn path in depicting a white man discovering a more authentic way of life in a nonwhite society.

The author's knowledge of Native American culture is impressive, his appreciation sincere. Several long monologues by Jimmy Fly-Wing immerse us directly in Indian folkways, relating the mythic history of his tribe somewhere in the Great Plains, describing his visions and out-of-body experiences, his talks with animals and insects. Regrettably, these chapters read like research dressed up as strained magic realism; it doesn't help that we don't know for another hundred pages what Jimmy's connection to Curtis will be. And it's awfully schematic to have Jimmy soar into the sky and meet Tasáwiche, the Havasupai chief's daughter whom Curtis has taken as his muse. "The shadow catcher," she intones. "He will need you." Off Jimmy goes on a quest that involves graduate studies in anthropology before he makes his way to Montana and offers his services to the photographer.

Jimmy, like many of the Native American characters, exists largely to validate Curtis's decision, controversial even in his own time, to photograph Indians only in their traditional costumes and to record only their ancient ceremonies. The novel acknowledges charges by "scientists" of "fakery and a forced romantic view" but doesn't really grapple with them. "You must always show the red man in his true garments, no matter what new things you find them wearing on top," Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé tells Curtis. "He sees us not the way we will become but the way we have been," Jimmy says admiringly. There's no notion that it might be valuable to see Native Americans the way they are.

Over and over again Curtis grieves, "They're dying and dying out," and declares that his life's work is "to make a record of who they were and what they believed, while they still held to those beliefs, however fast they were fading away." Only once, discussing his patron in the White House, does he acknowledge a political dimension to the extinction of Native American culture. "It's what [Theodore] Roosevelt predicts, and what he wants to happen," the photographer muses. "He wants to have us stuff and mount our subjects. . . . Put them in the museum." That's essentially what Curtis does in his 20-volume opus, "The North American Indian," which enshrines his tragic vision of a noble, doomed race.

This vision is not false, but it's simplistic and sentimental. Ironically, the freshest thing here is the passionate commitment with which Curtis clings to it. Generally slow-paced and over-determined, the novel gains a sense of urgency only in its later chapters, which show the aging photographer struggling to drum up funding by giving lectures and showing documentary films. He even takes a job as assistant cameraman on Cecil B. De Mille's film "The Ten Commandments" in 1923 to finance his final trips to capture "the last tribes." Curtis's frantic letters begging for money, his anguished sense that "so few people cared about what he had accomplished," have weight and bite. If the 400 pages that precede those letters rang with the same note of personal conviction, then "To Catch the Lightning" would be a truly exciting novel, rather than a well-intentioned misfire.

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