Learning to See: A Novel of Dorothea Lange, the Woman Who Revealed the Real America

Written by Elise Hooper
Review by Ellen Jaquette

Dorothea Lange, most famous for her Depression-era portraits taken for the federal government, is a complex and pioneering figure with a story worth telling. Hooper’s fictionalized look at this life covers both Lange’s personal life and long career. We watch her arrive in San Francisco, achieve commercial success, fall in love, and lose it all in the Great Depression. While this would be enough to fill an entire book, Hooper’s story does not end there. Dorothea continues her photography work during World War II and beyond, most notably by photographing the Japanese internment camps on the West Coast, all while juggling family responsibilities and friendships. Famous artists from the time make cameos throughout the story, adding interest and breathing life into this depiction of the creative community in San Francisco at that time.

Hooper does an admirable job at condensing a multitude of decades and careers into an immensely entertaining and page-turning novel. Tension underlying Lange’s life, such as the societal expectations on a working woman and mother of the time, are there, but subtly illustrated in lieu of hitting the reader over the head. One does wonder about the emotional impact of some of Lange’s choices, such as to place her children in foster care to pursue work during the Great Depression, but while we do not see the full weight of her decisions internally, we see the aftermath. A troubled relationship with her son Dan looms large over the second half of the novel, and it is only at the end, when the threads of her personal and professional life weave together, that the two stories in this novel—the artist’s journey and the home and romantic life of Lange―reveal themselves as one.