October 27, 2008

Edward Curtis the hero?

Cheuse catches lightning in a bottle in his take on Edward Curtis, an American firstThere's something attractive about "firsts." The first to fly a plane, the first to break a color barrier. We like to think of the people who accomplish these firsts as heroes, if only because we're attracted to the obsession that drove them toward that horizon.

Certainly Edward S. Curtis, the Seattle-based photographer who devoted 30 years of his life to producing 20 volumes of photographic images and writings about North American Indians, must be credited with having earned one of those "firsts." And now Alan Cheuse, in "To Catch the Lightning" (Sourcebooks, 492 pages, $25.95), admirably sets out to establish Curtis' right to hero status.

"I only hope my novel," says Cheuse, a book reviewer and commentator on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," "will help people understand what went into the making of our country, just as Curtis himself tried to do."
And:If anything detracts from this highly enjoyable, epic novel, it's the occasionally confusing use of point of view. We have two separate first-person narrators competing with Curtis to tell the story. It makes for an awkward moment or two. When Curtis first meets Tasáwiche, for example, and they take an evening stroll into the canyon, Myers suddenly pops out of the shadows like a scolding conscience and claims the narration, saving Curtis from a damaging admission.

But this minor flaw is more than compensated for by Cheuse's full-meal portrayal of Curtis' quest. Readers might well feel persuaded to agree with Curtis' son, Hal, who says to his father, "You are the best man I know."
Comment:  For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.

Below:  "A Walpi Man" by Edward Curtis...one model for my PEACE PARTY character Billy Honanie.

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