When he began taking photographs of Native Americans in the Western United States in 1904, Edward Curtis could not have imagined that he was beginning the project that would last him for the rest of his working life. Curtis became so obsessed with making a complete pictorial record of Native American tribes that he found himself choosing the project over his family any time that the two came into conflict. Ultimately, he would lose his wife, his photography business, and most of his other assets because he allowed his photographs and the books he published to become the most important things in his life – everything else was secondary.
In To Catch the Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming, Alan Cheuse uses longtime Curtis assistant William Myers and American Indian Jimmy Fly-wing to tell Edward Curtis’s story. Myers served as translator and transcriber for Curtis, making it possible for the pair to record the ancient Indian legends, stories, songs and history that turned Curtis’s project into so much more than just a collection of magnificent photographs. Fly-wing, a Plains Indian who out of curiosity climbed into the first train he ever saw and rode it all the way to Chicago, was an assistant of a different type, riding ahead of the party in order to locate Indian villages and build goodwill among the Indians about Curtis and his camera.
Curtis’s passion to visually record a society rapidly moving toward extinction was not well-rewarded during his lifetime despite the fact that much of his early work was financed by J.P. Morgan or that Teddy Roosevelt provided the forward for his series of books. After Morgan’s death, whenever Curtis was not actually in the field, he fought to keep the project alive by raising whatever money he could in the big cities of the East, further limiting the time he could spend at home and greatly adding to his wife Clara’s burden of raising their family and keeping their local photo studio in business entirely on her own.
To Catch the Lightning has a dramatic story to tell but it tells that story unevenly. At times the narrative races along with an excitement and tension perfect for the life led by this American dreamer. At other times, particularly during the long dream sequences of Jimmy Fly-wing and Curtis himself, the pace becomes sluggish and somewhat confusing, causing the book to sputter a bit before it regains its rhythm. Despite its uneven pacing, however, To Catch the Lightning offers worthy insights and explanations to help explain a man so willing to forsake his wife and children for a dream, a dream that consumed his entire lifetime, and one for which he will long be remembered.
Whether or not Curtis made the right choice for himself is certainly debatable. What is not debatable is that American history is richer and better documented because of the path he chose to follow.
Rated at: 3.5