The BohemiansPosted: September 15, 2021
The Bohemians: A Novel
Ballantine Books (April 6, 2021), 334 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $16.99
I don’t often read historical fiction, but a favorable review of The Bohemians prompted me to add it to my reading list. I’m glad I did.
The novel is a fictionalized account of the life of photographer Dorothea Lange. With Dorothea speaking in the first person, it follows her as a young woman coming from the East Coast to San Francisco in 1918. She brought only her Graflex camera and a small amount of money, which a good-looking thief stole from her at the ferry terminal. The novel tracks her industriousness and how she convinced a wealthy San Francisco businessman to provide financial backing so she could set up a portrait studio.
Central to the story is Caroline, a Chinese American woman who becomes her assistant. Through Caroline Dorothea learns that San Francisco of 1918 was a bigoted city where people held a strong prejudice against Asians and Italians. The climax of the book centers on a horrific act of violence against Caroline and Dorothea’s efforts to identify the attacker and exact revenge.
Most of us are familiar with Lange as the photojournalist who documented the Great Depression, in particular via that iconic photo of the migrant farm worker with her children. But in the novel this part of her life represents only a small section at the end of the book. Darznik focuses most of the novel on her effort to create a business out of nothing and then on her success as a portrait photographer to San Francisco’s rich and famous. That, and how her life was intertwined with Caroline.
Darznik intermixes what we know historically with wholly imagined fiction. She provides both an Author’s Note and a Historical Notes section at the end of the book. These sections tell us what we know as fact and what the author has imagined. For example, the novel describes her marriage to and eventual divorce from the artist Maynard Dixon, a much older man. All of that really happened. On the other hand, all we know about Dorothea’s assistant is that she was of Asian background and that some sources refer to her as Ah-yee. Darznik in her author’s note tells us that “Caroline Lee comes from my imagination.”
The author does a good job avoiding anachronisms until near the end of the book. There she has a couple of slip-ups. She uses the word “scrum” when referring to a crowd of people. That, of course, is a rugby term more recently adopted by the high-tech world. People in depression-era America wouldn’t have known the word. She refers to pulling off the freeway during her travels. I don’t believe there were freeways in the rural Bay Area of the 1930s. In another narrative disconnect she mentions coming home to her sons after being away taking pictures for several days. Sons who up to that point the narrator hadn’t mentioned.
Those are minor faults, however. Darznik’s writing flows beautifully and her plot is compelling. The Bohemians was enjoyable reading and offers a vivid portrait of San Francisco in the first half of the twentieth century.