Sunday, November 02, 2008

To Catch the Lightning by Alan Cheuse

To Catch the Lightning
by Alan Cheuse
Copyright 2008
Sourcebooks - Fiction/Historical
502 pages

Our mules are laden high with supplies, and the beasts we ride are weighted down with our bodies. The sun is rising up over the eastern walls of this great and glorious declivity, a monument to time so vast that none of us can any more imagine it whole than the mayfly can picture the turning pages of a calendar. Cliff upon cliff leads away in ranks to the north and west, and yet it appears as though no dimension exists but the one in which we're standing. All else around us remains only an arm's length away. This makes me think of the childhood notion that one had only to reach out with a hand to snare a star.

I'm going to have to divert from normal review mode for this one. There's just too much I want to say about it. So, self-interview.

Me: So, tell everyone about the book, without giving anything away.

Myself: That's not a very original interview question.

Me: Complain, complain.

Myself: To Catch the Lightning is historical fiction about the life of Edward Sheriff Curtis, the renowned photographer who made it his mission to capture photographs of Native Americans in every tribe in the United States, to record them before their ancient traditions and costumes disappeared.

Me: The viewpoints are important because my alter ego, I, tells me that you're a little perplexed as to the way this book was written.

Myself: Yes, definitely. There are multiple viewpoints. Rather than having Curtis describe his life in first person or from a more distant perspective, the author chose to show Curtis primarily via the viewpoint of William E. Myers, assistant to Curtis for many years. That's not a bad thing, in and of itself, but the author didn't stick entirely to the thoughts of Myers. Instead, he did what writers refer to as "head-hopping", describing how Curtis thought and felt, as well as Myers' own point of view. Sometimes, head-hopping doesn't bother me a bit, but in this case I thought the author's portrayal of his subject was a bit . . . presumptuous. It grated my nerves in a way that few books of this type do.

Also, there is a second much-used narrator, Jimmy Fly-Wing. Jimmy was a Plains Indian who left his home and family, quickly learned English and became a scholar. Eventually, he crossed paths with the Curtis expedition. He seemed unable to find a place in either his native world or the city life of the modern European transplant.

Occasionally, Edward Curtis' wife, Clara, shares her thoughts.

Before I stomp all over the book, ask me about the good and please remember that I actually enjoyed the book but had a lot of problems with it, as well. So, hang in there.

Me: Will do. Tell us what you loved about the book.

Myself: I really enjoyed learning about the life of Curtis -- how the combination of an expedition to Alaska with some wealthy men in addition to some early experiences photographing Native Americans gave him the idea to capture on film way of life that was quickly disappearing. Also, his struggles to fund his expeditions and the angst of his marital troubles were interesting. Myers appears to have been a brilliant linguist and extremely dedicated to helping Curtis with his fieldwork; I found that I admired him and his efforts. I was also fond of Clara for her strength and business sense, although I thought Cheuse's portrayal of her was quite negative. For one thing, he describes her as not particularly attractive. I've looked her up online and I think she was lovely. Stylistically, sometimes the writing was lyrical and dreamlike.

Me: Sometimes?


Yes, and here is one thing that really, really annoyed me. The author frequently wrote lovely passages that were interrupted by common language -- as in vulgar choice of terminology. I thought his use of the vulgar destroyed the flow and the literary beauty of the book. This isn't a very good example of a nice passage, but this shows you a bit of the common language that intervenes:

I was a middle child, with two ahead of me, tall and strong boys, and two behind me, two, as it happened, mewling and puling girls. My brothers took care of themselves, and I looked forward to the day when I would live that way. The babies below me stayed on the tit and made for worries during the winters when it became difficult for them to eat and breathe.

The use of "on the tit" instead of saying that the children were breast-fed just jerked me right out of the moment. Bodily functions, in general, were described using common terms. I found them intrusive and out of place.

Me: So, what did you think of Cheuse's portrayal of Curtis?

Myself: I'm not trying to be picky, here, but okay . . . I'm a fairly obsessive amateur photographer, so I feel like I have an understanding of the process, the art of composition and the emotions involved in finding the subject matter, setting the scene, or simply capturing a moment. I thought that the meaning and, particularly, the joy involved in the process of photography were completely missing from this book. There's more emphasis on the spirituality of his experiences with Native Americans and the angst of his personal life (money trouble and friction with the wife), as well as the constant travel than of the photography. It also appeared that Cheuse diverted from the true time-line. I could be wrong about that, but in historical fiction I feel very strongly that one should use reality to frame the fiction and it certainly didn't appear that the bare bones were in the right places.

Me: Any other criticisms, She Who Picks Books to Pieces.

Myself: Sigh. Yes, one more. I had a strong feeling that the author intruded and forced his own beliefs on Edward Curtis. That is simply an impression and I could give you some specific examples of why I believe that, but I don't think it's worth going into. My opinion only. Also, I thought Jimmy Fly-Wing's story was just flat weird, even though he serves as an excellent example of the difficulty aboriginal people have in adjusting, when their customs and traditions are swallowed up by new ways and their land is stolen. I thought he treated the natives with empathy and the wife with contempt. Poor Clara had to have been a very strong woman, running the business and rearing children as a single parent most of the time, but she was portrayed as whiny and mean-spirited.

Me: So, would you recommend the book?


Yes, with slight hesitation. In spite of the many negatives mentioned, I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading the book. It's a breezy read, in many ways, and Edward Curtis was such an interesting man that it was really quite enjoyable to learn a bit about him. Aside from the fact that he took photographs of Indians, there wasn't really a thing that I could have told you about Edward S. Curtis before reading the book. To Catch the Lightning piqued my curiosity enough that I'd like to read more about Curtis (and have read a bit online). I've added Anne Makepeace's biography of Curtis, Edward S. Curtis: Coming to Light, to my wish list. I do think the author tried too hard to be stylish and went overboard, to be honest. I'd have liked a more straight-forward writing style.

Me: Do you think you'd read more by the author?


Yes, definitely.

I: Not to intrude or anything, but I think it's rude and bizarre that you never include me in your interviews.

Me: Hey, you were mentioned way back at the beginning.


Don't you mean "I was mentioned"?

I: You guys are losing me.


Someone say this interview is over.

Me, Myself and I

(in chorus): The End.

More weirdness will be available for your reading pleasure in future posts. Hope you had a nice weekend!

Bookfool, who absolutely abhors that Daylight Savings Time "fall back" business. I like longer evenings, thank you very much.


  1. Anonymous5:23 PM

    I not only like longer evenings, I like darker mornings - it's easier to sleep in when it's dark out.

  2. I love the different ways that you do your reviews! It makes it fun and unique.

  3. You're so funny, Nancy! Very effective method for reviewing just the same. :-)

  4. Wow! What an opening quote! I love it and it's a great example of his ability to use lyrical language.

    In his defense, however, the expression "on the tit" was pretty common back then, don't you think?

    And I do so love your self interviews!


  5. Bermudaonion,

    Me, too! I am so not a morning person. It should stay dark while we're trying to sleep off those evening reading sessions. :)


    Thank you! Have to shake things up, now and then (and this method does seem to work when there's some need to depart from the typical). LOL


    Thank you! I enjoy tossing one of those weird reviews in, now and then. Self-interviewing is a fun change of pace.


    Oh, good, I'm glad you like that quote. I don't want to put people off entirely; the book is good but I had some personal quibbles with it, you know? My objective was to keep the review as balanced as possible, not to hang the author out to dry. :)

    I have no idea -- that's not an expression I've read anywhere else, as far as I know. "Nursing" is probably the most common term. There are a lot of other terms like that one that just were jarring to me.

    Why, thank you.

  6. As always, your multiple personalities are amusing. :)

    I hate the word 'tit' no matter how it's used, so I'm with you there.

    Changing the clocks always messes me up. I'll have a week of terrible sleep and headaches now.

  7. Anonymous6:43 PM

    The "fall back" business is actually the end of Daylight Saving Time. The "spring forward" is when we screw with the clocks.

    I like earlier nightfall myself, one of the reasons I like winter. The shortening up of the evening light isn't just due to people thinking they can control the sun, y'know.

    Yeah, don't mind me. I hate losing that hour in the Spring and "DST" with a purple passion.

    Interesting interview! The book does sound good, the head hopping would be annoying but the crude vernacular sounds like the language of the tim.

  8. Anonymous7:22 PM

    LOL! Steve is reading this book right now. I am curious how he will feel about it. Love your interview style...made me smile.

  9. Chris,

    All three of my personalities thank you.

    And, thank you for agreeing with me on the tit thing. LOL

    I would so love it if we could opt out of time changes. I know there are places that's done, but I don't know where they are. Need to figure it out and move. I've had a migraine for 8 or 9 days, now (waking up with it, getting rid of it for a while, waking up with it), so I'm already there on the lack of sleep and headache. I hope it doesn't cause you too much trouble.


    Yes, I realize the earth is farther away from the sun, but we screw with the clocks twice a year, regardless of which time change is considered a return to normality. Springing and falling. The falling really stinks, if you ask me. For my part, I like having a little daylight when the husband comes home, so I can make him do yardwork during the cool months. We have shorter days than folks farther up on the map in the summer (which is probably good) but most of the year it's too hot to work on the yard for long.

    You morning people rule the world. (insert raspberries)

    Hmm, it may be language of the time but it's used in the narrative rather than the dialogue. So, there are lovely paragraphs like that first quote with vulgar words in the midst. It just threw me. There are gentler terms that could have been used.

  10. J.Kaye,

    Wahoo! I can't wait to hear what Steve thinks. It's just as fun reading what everyone else thought as it is reading the book, sometimes. And, thank you. :)

  11. Fun interview, as always! Nice to see I, however briefly. ;)

    Come to Japan! No DST here, although I think they were talking about it but I don't know if they'll ever agree to start it. I try to tell a Japanese person about DST and it's simply beyond their comprehension! Seriously! Oh and the province of Saskatchewan, in Canada, doesn't do DST either! You could move to Moosejaw and say toque all the time! :P

  12. Excellent self-interview! Despite the negatives, I think I would like this book and added it to Mt. TBR.

  13. Nat,

    That was a nod to you, adding "I" to the picture. :)

    I think I need to move to Moosejaw. It's very, very important to find regular excuses to say "toque". But, you knew that. LOL Isn't it funny how something you've lived with for years can be so impossible to explain to people who've never experienced it? It seems like a perfectly straightforward concept, but really . . . it makes no sense to me, why we turn our clocks.

    Teddy Rose,

    Thank you! I really did enjoy the book, in spite of all those negatives. I hope you like it! It's an unusual read, but I love history and felt like I got something out of the reading.

  14. I felt pretty much same as you about this book. The mix of narrative voices really, really annoyed me. The swiftness with which Jimmy Fly-Wing educated himself surprised me. And I wished to read more about the actual work of photography. Like the part where he described using banana oil? It was so interesting, and so poorly explained.

  15. I don't like the time change either.

  16. Jeane,

    I'm so glad you agree! I didn't mention how quickly Jimmy Fly-Wing educated himself, but yeah . . . actually, I didn't buy that. I'm sure it's possible, but it just seemed beyond the pale. And, I would so have loved to read more about the actual processing, especially the banana-oil procedure. Pretty much all you get out of the book is, "It smelled awful." I think we could have surmised that much. :)


    I'm dragging, today. I think my body is saying one thing and the clocks are saying another. I even let the kiddo drive us downtown to get smoothies because I was hoping the juice would perk me up. Does Italy do DST?

  17. Anonymous4:48 PM

    I had my Me and my Myself read this and we discussed... We all got the impression that you actually disliked the author, yet still liked his writing? And Me wants my I (I'm typing) to type a question as to WHEN this dude took pictures of the Indians - what time period did this guy live? We thank you in advance.

  18. I have absolutely no interest in this one, but have to say I still loved the interview.

    I'm a morning person, I LOVE waking up at 5 instead of 6. You can hate me, I'll understand.

  19. Care,

    You're so funny! I think the two of you are correct in a way -- basically, I think the author ticked me off. He seemed a bit on the misogynistic side. Now, as far as whether Curtis really was that way, I can't say. But I think it really peeved me that Cheuse focused on the negative when it came to describing Mrs. Curtis. I've got a million-miler husband and I know how tough it is to hold down the fort. And, she kept a business running! So, yeah. I enjoyed the book and would read more by the author, but he rubbed me the wrong way, this time around.

    Edward Curtis lived to be 84 and died in the 1950s, so most of his photography took place around the turn of the 20th century -- from 1900 - 1927. By that point, Native Americans were losing their traditions and some were being absorbed into the society of white men. He apparently requested that his subjects dress in traditional costume in order to preserve images of those traditional outfits before they disappeared.


    Well, thank you for that! I love historical fiction, but I know it's not everyone's cuppa.

    I don't hate you, but I wouldn't want to share a room with you. Hahaha. My husband is a morning person. It's really painful. Sometimes he has to turn on the light to find matching socks. Maybe light in the morning is good for that, but the sun set sooo early.

  20. Loved your review. And I would love to have Day-Light Savings all year.

  21. Framed,

    Thank you. You must be a morning person. :)

  22. Anonymous10:41 PM

    Got I was surprised at this one...but i love your idea of a review like this one :-)

    GOOD JOB :-)
    and great review!

  23. Veens,

    Caught you off-gaurd, eh? I'm glad you like the idea and the review. Thanks!

  24. Off subject, as all too often the case with me, your header never ceases to surprise and enlighten me. I like how you change it as often as I do, and how you always find a meaningful quote.

    You are a blessing.

  25. Bellezza,

    Thank you!! You're so sweet. Isn't that a wonderful quote?

    We do like changing our headers pretty often, don't we? :) I was looking for a fall theme and couldn't come up with anything that didn't clash with my background colors, so that's why I chose the rain. At the moment, I'm craving cloud cover. It's been bright and sunny for weeks. Need a day off from that bright light!!!

  26. Anonymous12:36 PM

    How cute! I think "I" should try to oust "Me" and "Myself" in some of your future me myself and I reviews!

  27. Chartroose,

    I might have a fighting chance in the future. Hahaha. That sounds funny. ;)

  28. I admit it. I haven't finished reading To Catch the Lightning. The problem is, I may never be able to force myself to do so. When I read Cheuse's dialogs I feel like someone tied a couple of cinder blocks to my ankles: it's hard, hard slogging to get through the stiff, stilted, unnaturally stylized "conversations" indeed.

  29. Veronica,

    Yes, I can relate. I still remember fussing over that book and wanting to abandon it, although it's been a year. This year, I gave myself permission to abandon books that weren't grabbing me and I've had a much better reading year.


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