To Catch The Lightning
While Edward S. Curtis’s iconic photos of Native Americans, taken in the early years of the 20th century, revealed much about that culture and its peoples, little has been written about the photographer himself. Alan Cheuse’s novel To Catch the Lightning sheds light on Curtis, who spent roughly thirty years of his life tramping across the length and breadth of America, even as far as Alaska, photographing Native Americans before, as he feared, they vanished completely.
Cheuse depicts a man driven by an obsession that threatens to destroy his own family life as he spends more and more time away from his wife and children. Clara, the long-suffering wife, is forced to manage Curtis’s studio in Seattle while also tending to the Curtis children and the household. She discovers some satisfaction in her accomplishments, however, and develops a more assertive nature that only deepens the estrangement she feels for Edward. On his part, Edward remains a doomed romantic as he captures the images of a vanishing culture. He is helpless even as his family begins to disintegrate.
The story is told mostly through the viewpoint of William Myers, Curtis’s longtime assistant, with another perspective coming from Jimmy Fly-Wing, a Native American friend and guide. It would have been helpful if the author had given us more of Curtis’s thoughts directly, rather than filtered through the point of view of others, especially regarding his familial difficulties. Still, this book is an interesting and evocative look at a man whose history has long been waiting to be told.