Published by William Morrow on January 22, 2019
Source: the publisher
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At a time when women were supposed to keep the home fires burning, Dorothea Lange, creator of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century, dares to be different. Now, in this riveting new novel by the author of The Other Alcott, we see the world through her eyes…
In 1918, a fearless twenty-two-year old arrives in bohemian San Francisco from the Northeast, determined to make her own way as an independent woman. Renaming herself Dorothea Lange she is soon the celebrated owner of the city’s most prestigious and stylish portrait studio and wife of the talented but volatile painter, Maynard Dixon.
By the early 1930s, as America’s economy collapses, her marriage founders and Dorothea must find ways to support her two young sons single-handedly. Determined to expose the horrific conditions of the nation’s poor, she takes to the road with her camera, creating images that inspire, reform, and define the era. And when the United States enters World War II, Dorothea chooses to confront another injustice—the incarceration of thousands of innocent Japanese Americans.
Learning to See is a gripping account of the ambitious woman behind the camera who risked everything for art, activism, and love. But her choices came at a steep price…
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
It’s so, so funny how life works out sometimes. When I was in high school, my AP US History teacher of all time (my favorite teacher of all time) often started class by showing us iconic images and then facilitated critical thinking discussions about what we were seeing, what may have led the photographer to take the photo, etc etc. He used many of Dorothea Lange’s photographs and they have been cemented in my brain throughout my life, which led me to do the same thing with my own high school-aged kids in our homeschool. We discuss the importance of images, not only to preserve the real history of the time for us to see for ourselves, but also as potential forms of subversion and protest and speaking out.
I never could have foreseen that years later, a book like Learning To See by Elise Hooper would enter my bookish life! I’ve been a huge fan of Dorothea Lange’s work for years-learning from it, using it to educate my children-so when I got the chance to read and review this book, I leaped upon it, Olympic-style. I have also read and loved Ms. Hooper’s previous book, The Last Alcott, so I had all ideas that I would love this one too. And I did.
The book begins when Dorothea Lange moved to San Francisco in the early 1900’s. She lived among other artists and photographers, so she was really fortunate to be present in a place where she could blossom as an artist herself. She was ambitious for a woman during that time in America’s history, when women were most often still staying at home, married and raising families. She got her beginning as a portrait photographer and was really successful at that, but she was more fulfilled when she was out among the people, roaming around, taking the pictures that told the stories of what life was really like out in America for people that didn’t have a voice, particularly the folks trying to find work during the Dust Bowl-era and Japanese Americans that had been relocated during the Second World War. Her work was noticed, and I mean noticed-some of it was actually censored because of the truth she exposes.
Not only do I love the actual historical significance of Lange’s work in this narrative, I love what Ms. Hooper has shared with us about her life. Dorothea Lange lived during a time when women had expectations and roles in terms of marriage and motherhood, and even though she was incredibly driven and successful professionally, she still carried the majority of the parenting duties. In Lange’s case, marriage and parenting was particularly difficult. I’m not sure whether or not it would have been any easier had she been married to someone other than a famous artist like Maynard Dixon (whose work is also amazing), but these two had an interesting go of it, to say the least.
I feel like it is important to say that this is a work of fiction, but it is well-researched and I feel like I was able to get a good feel not only for Ms. Lange, but for her contemporaries and for the time in which she was living. Speaking of contemporaries, there are so many cool people mentioned in this book. So many people that Ms. Lange crossed paths with and communicated with-I think that’s one of the neater parts about her story. There is a part involving John Steinbeck and his incredible novel The Grapes of Wrath that sticks out in my mind LIKE WHOA because it is my top-favorite classic novel. I read this part three times and feel like I want to do a little bit more research on this! Certainly with the subject matter of many of Ms. Lange’s photos and also the subject of The Grapes of Wrath being similar in nature, this interests me greatly. But no spoilers here!
I’m just always in awe of women that lived during these times when their roles were so defined with so little wiggle-room and yet are able to be so successful, driven, and productive. Ms. Lange contributed so much to society and history, and we are still able to benefit from her work-perhaps more than ever before-and I’m just a huge, huge fan of her work. And this book.
I highly, highly recommend Learning To See by Elise Hooper for people that enjoy reading stories about women in history, stories about art, stories about the Depression-era or the Dust Bowl-era or even the period of time surrounding the Second World War. Even though this book isn’t really about the war itself, Lange’s work and what she experienced when she was out working helps to paint a picture of what the landscape of America was like during that time. Dorothea Lange is a flat-out icon and holy batman, this story is just really, really excellent.