Dorothea Lange is perhaps best known for her photograph The Migrant Mother that came to represent the plight of the thousands who were forced from their farms and homes during the Dust Bowl.
The Bohemians, however, concentrates on Lange's 1918 arrival in San Francisco at twenty-three. San Francisco, still scarred by the 1906 earthquake, was a mecca for many creative people, and the young Dorothea Lange, who wanted to be a successful portrait photographer, made her way--slowly building important relationships with people like Imogen Cunningham, Consuela Kanaga, Donaldina Cameron (couldn't find any evidence that Lange knew Donaldina Cameron, but she certainly would have known of her), Ansel Adams, and Maynard Dixon (whom she married).
What I loved: reading about some of these people and finding out more about them via Google; the events like the end of WWI and the soldiers coming home; the Spanish flu; the racism of early San Francisco (the character James Ferrell, is based on Sen. James D. Phelan, Nativist and promoter of the "yellow peril).
What I didn't like so much: The novel is a first person account by Dorothea Lange, but so much of the story was about Lange's friendship with Caroline Lee, a fictional character. At first, I searched the internet looking for Caroline Lee, Lange's best friend. Nothing. As a result, my belief in the story was reduced.
I finally discovered that in the early years of her portrait studio, Lange did have a Chinese assistant, but the fact alone is all the factual information available. Maybe having reversed protagonists and making the fictional Caroline tell the story would have worked better for me.
Darznik includes additional information in her Notes, which helped, but as it was an audiobook, I didn't realize that until I'd finished the book. In this case, I wish I'd been reading a print version which I could have read much more quickly, determined my own "intonations" in conversations, and checked the author's additional information easily.
I love learning new things, and there was a lot of fascinating information about San Francisco in the 1920's. Monkey Block, the prejudice against the Chinese, the devastating effects of the Spanish flu, the anarchist bombings...San Francisco is perhaps the dominant character in the novel. It is clear that the author feels a deep connection to the city and its history.
I now want to read a biography of Lange. My previous knowledge of her was only through her work as a documentary photographer for the FSA during the Depression. The book skips over a large part of her life, most of her marriage to Maynard Dixon, the birth of her sons, even her work for the FSA takes a back seat to her early days as a portrait photographer.
In the end, I didn't love The Bohemians as much as my friend Suzie did, but I admire the research that went into the book and the curious history of early San Francisco. Suzie and I always share what we are reading and recommend books to each other, but don't always coincide in genres (she doesn't really enjoy mysteries!), and we often have slightly different opinions of books we read. We've been doing this since we were college roommates, sharing authors and favorite books. It has proven an excellent balance, not always agreeing, but always eager to give a new book a try.
How would I rate The Bohemians? Using Cathy's alphabetical rating, maybe a B. Much to admire, but not quite what I was hoping for. Goodreads has plenty of 5 star reviews.
Audiobook. Narrator: Dylan Moore
Historical/Biographical Fiction. 2021.