To Catch the Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming [NOOK Book]

Overview

The critically acclaimed winner of the Grub Street National Book Prize for Fiction

" Until someone tells you, you never know in whose dreams you appear..."
from the prologue

Beginning in the late 1890s, Edward Sheriff Curtis embarked on an overwhelming odyssey to document and photograph the fading way of life of the American Indian. In To Catch the Lightning, Alan Cheuse creates a remarkable portrait of the man who would become a legend. Curtis...

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To Catch the Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming

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Overview

The critically acclaimed winner of the Grub Street National Book Prize for Fiction

" Until someone tells you, you never know in whose dreams you appear..."
from the prologue

Beginning in the late 1890s, Edward Sheriff Curtis embarked on an overwhelming odyssey to document and photograph the fading way of life of the American Indian. In To Catch the Lightning, Alan Cheuse creates a remarkable portrait of the man who would become a legend. Curtis turned his lens on a landscape of unparalleled beauty and tradition, and in so doing, became the architect of the finest lasting visual record of a culture close to extinction.

Here is a haunting tale of the struggle between ambition and duty and a testament to the power of the sacrifices we make for the dreams that compel us.

"Digs deep into the mystery and sacrifice and selfishness of creative vision."
Charles Frazier

"A worthy effort...illuminating unknown corners of a great photographer's life."
Kirkus Reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Longtime NPR commentator Cheuse returns with his ambitious if not entirely successful ninth book, a novel based on the life of Edward Curtis, the photographer who in 1904 dedicated his life to creating a pictorial record of Native American tribes. Narrated by Curtis's assistant, William Myers, the novel also tells the story of Jimmy Fly-wing, a Plains Indian who leaves his tribe to learn the ways of the white man and aids Curtis in his quest. Curtis's passion for his project is palpable, and his dedication forces him to choose between his family and his work. Though he becomes estranged from his wife, Clara, he is rewarded by the faith and gratitude of many of the peoples he photographed and by glimpses into secret tribal traditions. Though the historical material is often compelling, the novel's focus can diffuse as Cheuse moves between the narrative strands and struggles to keep the story moving over 50 years. When not stuck in the doldrums, the narrative brims with keen insight. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus

A pensive, sometimes ponderous imagining of the life of renowned photographer Edward Curtis, who ran away from the urban circus to join the Indians.

Curtis's sepia-tint photographs are well known. His life is not. NPR book critic Cheuse (The Fires, 2007, etc.) attempts to situate Curtis in a historical time and within the context of the man's long and interesting, if somewhat chaotic, life. This might have worked better as a biography than a novel, had not Laurie Lawlor's Shadow Catcher: The Life and Work of Edward S. Curtis (1994) been first to market. As it is, Cheuse is forced to provide so much exposition in the story that, if it were a movie, the narrative would be more voiceover than image; this has the effect of slowing the narrative down and, from time to time, forcing it into cul-de-sacs. That said, Cheuse's approach to Curtis, who wanted nothing more than to escape the stifling city and the close confines of his marriage to roam the plains and deserts with the last unimpounded Indians, is sympathetic and affecting; says the book's narrator to the photographer, "You're an unusual man but you're not more than human," and indeed Curtis emerges as lifelike but never larger than life. By Cheuse's account, Curtis's chief blemish is a kind of proprietary jealousy: He would sooner smash his glass-plate negatives, irreplaceable though they may be, rather than see them fall into the hands of his estranged wife, and so he does. Borrowing a page from Doctorow and perhaps Brian Hall-whose imaginings of the lives of famous men are much more vivid blends of fact and fiction-Cheuse studs the narrative with historical figures from Theodore Roosevelt to Cecil B. DeMille, who move thestory along even as they helped Curtis in real life.

A worthy effort, if a touch too elaborate, illuminating unknown corners of a great photographer's life.

ForeWord

"An engrossing tale of sacrifice, passion, and devotion to purpose not often exhibited by any man... To Catch The Lightening will, once again, bring both fame and immortality to Edward Curtis and Alan Cheuse." - ForeWord magazine, Sept/Oct issue

Library Journal

Edward S. Curtis is widely known through his photographic encyclopedia of North America's tribal peoples, but little is known of the man himself. NPR commentator Cheuse (The Fires; The Light Possessed ) envisions the backstory in his new novel. Much of the narration falls to William Myers, the classics scholar recruited to accompany Curtis because of his facility with languages. Some chapters are credited to Jimmy Fly-Wing, a Native American who studied his own people through the newly defined discipline of anthropology at the University of Chicago. And Curtis's wife, Clara, weighs in with poignant reflections on raising a family and running a portrait studio while her husband devotes himself to his overwhelming love, a project that takes him into remote parts of America as well as its larger cities; raising funds for the next trip from the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan takes as much time and work as the journeys and photographs themselves. Cheuse does an admirable job of invoking a period, a quest, and the spiritual convergence of times ancient and modern. Recommended for popular reading collections.-Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati State Technical and Community Coll., OH

Kirkus Reviews
A pensive, sometimes ponderous imagining of the life of renowned photographer Edward Curtis, who ran away from the urban circus to join the Indians. Curtis's sepia-tint photographs are well known. His life is not. NPR book critic Cheuse (The Fires, 2007, etc.) attempts to situate Curtis in a historical time and within the context of the man's long and interesting, if somewhat chaotic, life. This might have worked better as a biography than a novel, had not Laurie Lawlor's Shadow Catcher: The Life and Work of Edward S. Curtis (1994) been first to market. As it is, Cheuse is forced to provide so much exposition in the story that, if it were a movie, the narrative would be more voiceover than image; this has the effect of slowing the narrative down and, from time to time, forcing it into cul-de-sacs. That said, Cheuse's approach to Curtis, who wanted nothing more than to escape the stifling city and the close confines of his marriage to roam the plains and deserts with the last unimpounded Indians, is sympathetic and affecting; says the book's narrator to the photographer, "You're an unusual man but you're not more than human," and indeed Curtis emerges as lifelike but never larger than life. By Cheuse's account, Curtis's chief blemish is a kind of proprietary jealousy: He would sooner smash his glass-plate negatives, irreplaceable though they may be, rather than see them fall into the hands of his estranged wife, and so he does. Borrowing a page from Doctorow and perhaps Brian Hall-whose imaginings of the lives of famous men are much more vivid blends of fact and fiction-Cheuse studs the narrative with historical figures from Theodore Roosevelt to Cecil B. DeMille, who move the story alongeven as they helped Curtis in real life. A worthy effort, if a touch too elaborate, illuminating unknown corners of a great photographer's life.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781402235092
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 10/1/2009
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 528
  • File size: 4 MB

Meet the Author

Novelist, essayist, and story writer Alan Cheuse (Washington, D.C.) has been described as "The Voice of Books on NPR." The author of A Trance after Breakfast, he has also written three novels and a pair of novellas. He is the editor of Seeing Ourselves: Great Early American Short Stories and co-editor of Writers' Workshop in a Book. He teaches writing at George Mason University.
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Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Chapter One: the clamdigger

So, Sing in me, O Muse! (if you are still listening to pleas such as mine)....

Sing in me of Edward Sheriff Curtis...of his great quest and adventures, of his heroic yearnings to make known the faces and songs and souls of the First Americans before they faded into Time, and of the cost to his marriage, to his family, to his spirit, and to his life. Sing in me, first, of the echoes in his name, Curtiz, Cortez, which carries us back to the story of the man who conquered the New World, and then sing in me how our Curtis tried to turn the flow of time in the other direction, from conquered to conquering, from unknown to known, from now to then.

Sing how Edward Sheriff Curtis first arrived in Seattle when he was still a gawky boy, all arms and elbows, attending to his ailing father, a Civil War veteran and preacher; how they traveled by train all the way from the family home in Wisconsin, across the prairie where once buffalo by the millions grazed; and how young Edward in his day dreaming populated the empty landscape with all these absent herds.

His father read the Bible and dozed-his heart was wearing-and Edward, after the prairie faded behind them and they had climbed into the mountains, gazed at slide after slide in the stereopticon given to him as a gift by a photographer for whom he had worked after school and in summers. A tall boy, he could muster a long reach when he tried, and adults liked that. He had a future, they all decided, the nature of which was not yet clear.

His older brother, Raphael, a Seattle resident of some years now who had prompted the family relocation, liked that. As soon as Edwardarrived in town-and settled across the Sound where his father rented a small wooden house and prepared to bring out his wife, daughter, and youngest son who had remained behind in Wisconsin-Ray gave him a job in his livery stable. Within a few years Edward had saved some money, and with his brother's help he bought a partnership in a small photography business downtown. (A partner in a business at such an early age! Oh, America! Oh, commerce!)

Seattle-my Muse, help me to conjure its watery-blue skies, the Sound, its lake, its hilly streets, the distant snow-capped mountains-had suffered a major fire and the city was slowly recovering from the ordeal. Though not a single life was lost, family portraits went up in smoke, and photographers such as Edward were helping to restore the images to the walls, images of the new families if not the old. And in the midst of this he lost his own father. Soon after his business partner retired, he, now sole owner, moved across the water and started a family of his own, marrying red-haired, pale-skinned Clara, whose portrait he had made a few years before.

CLARA, IN HER WORDS
And she? Oh, she! She plunged into this infatuation she called by the name-in a diary that she kept for a while but abandoned after her children came along (but not to get too far ahead of things here)-of first and only love. I feel, she wrote, like the child my parents always treated me as being. I am lost, and I need a hand to hold in order to stay on the path. He seems ten feet tall to me, I look up to him so far.

And yet he does not look down on me. He talks to me, the only man who has ever talked to me, as an equal. He tells me about his work, about his past, his family, his dreams for the future. Perhaps the cause of this goes back into the time in his adolescent years when, injured in a fall in the warehouse where he was working to bring home some needed money to his family, my father and I, who happened to be on an errand in that same place, gave him aid and brought him to a doctor who wrapped his aching back.

Though Edward did not remember me the day my family and I came into his studio for our portrait, I believe that we were destined to come together. I was more than a plain girl, my Papa told me. I think he was right. Look into the eyes of that portrait Edward himself made of me (and the others) on that fated day we met again in the studio, and anyone who sees deeply enough will see more than they might have bargained for in me. At first sight, plain-and, clearly, unmemorable. The second time, and thereafter, see my depth. My own mother often told me that, and from her I learned I had a history myself, a family history that began to the north and east and extended westward (a word Edward liked to say).

Canada, the home of both my father and mother, was just a word to me. As was Pennsylvania, the state where I was born. I loved where I lived when I first awoke to being alive, here on the shores of the Sound. I kept dolls, my first loves. Edward courted me as though I was one of them, and I enjoyed it.

He was very sweet. He would sit with me in the parlor on my mother's best red chairs and talk about his life, telling me about a birdcall in the night that first woke him to himself when he was a boy, about his mother, his father, about his stereopticon, and his first photography lessons. He told me about the great train ride he and his father had made, and how he had imagined vast herds of buffalo racing alongside his window. All of this made me see he was a sensitive young man, someone who would care for me with affection and feeling. I told him about my dolls. I couldn't tell him how I hoped for a good husband and children.

We walked along the shoreline, side by side but never touching, looking west to the mountains. It was always west, west, west that he talked about.

"One day," he said, "I would like to sail to Hawaii." Never a word, never a notion about returning again to the mountains to the east of us, or scouting the snowy country to the north, or returning to cross the Great Plains, which he had traveled a while ago.

We gazed out over the Sound, the wind whipping up whitetopped waves that looked as dangerous as ice. I don't understand why I have always been afraid of the water.
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