The Healing of Natalie Curtis

Written by Jane Kirkpatrick
Review by Marlie Wasserman

Jane Kirkpatrick tells the story of Natalie Curtis, an accomplished musician who compiled a landmark book on American Indian culture. In 1897 Curtis suffered a nervous breakdown, brought on by the pressure of performing in concerts and by an unrequited love interest. Her brother George, concerned about his sister’s lingering malaise, had been working at a ranch in the West. In 1902, he convinced her to travel with him to California, then on to Arizona and other states, hoping new sounds and sights would revive her. They did. Fascinated with Indian songs and with their creators, Natalie Curtis devoted the rest of her life to recording and publishing Indian music. She fought against efforts to assimilate Indians, confronting officials who banned Indian songs, dance, and dress. Using her family connection to Theodore Roosevelt, she lobbied, with mixed success, for an end to such harmful regulations.

Kirkpatrick bases her engaging work of historical fiction on facts, but creatively fills gaps in the record. The novel at times reads like a travelogue, as Curtis and her brother move by horse, mule, and wagon from one community of Indians to another. Some readers may find Curtis’s progress toward mental health insufficiently dramatic to sustain the plot and may feel her enlightened efforts to avoid objectifying Indian culture seem too current. Other readers will admire how Kirkpatrick conveys Curtis’s growing appreciation for Indian culture and will praise the novel as a well-written story of a journey toward mental and spiritual health. Readers may also welcome the imaginative “interludes” scattered through the novel that are written from the point of view of individual Indians, adding to the range of perspectives.