Book Review: Learning to See by Elise Hooper

I’m so excited to finally have an opportunity review Learning to See by Elise Hooper for you! I finished it last night and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

Learning to See

While I have not yet had a chance to read The Other Alcott (Hooper’s first novel,) I’ve been told that it’s an amazing study of a woman overlooked by history. I expected no less from Learning to See and I was not disappointed.

Learning to See is the fictionalized account of the life of Dorothea Lange, a famous documentary photographer from during the Great Depression. Going into the book, I knew nothing of Lange and wasn’t sure I was going to be excited about what promised to be an inspiring story set during a pretty dismal time period. Fortunately for me, I was pretty blown away by what I encountered.

Lange, as portrayed by Hooper, is a tough, determined, young woman who appears on the 1920’s photography scene. She comes to California from New Jersey to escape her disappointing childhood and establishes herself quickly among great artists who were familiar to me, though I had never heard of Lange herself. Lange’s story is peppered with references to the likes of Ansel Adams and Frida Kahlo and those characterizations helped greatly in setting the scene for Lange and helping to set her style and focus apart from others of her time.

Hooper’s depictions of San Franciso prior to, during and after The Great Depression are breathtaking…you can feel yourself caught up in the heyday that comprises the California that Lange enters and the encroaching dread as the country begins to slide into one of the most depressing and heartbreaking periods we have ever known.

I was most amazed by Hooper’s characterization of Lange as feminist. Our ideas about feminism today seem philosophical to me…being a feminist is about holding a certain set of beliefs. Lange, on the other hand, may have had no idea what it meant to believe in feminism but simply embodied it in pursuit of family, independence, love, career and influence. Parts of Lange’s story are absolutely painful to read as the reality of her time and place in history are so well wrought by Hooper.

There was a great deal I didn’t know The Depression…Hooper does an amazing job of describing the state of our country through Lange’s interviews and photographs and drawing a picture that is as breathtaking as it haunting. Hooper depicts Lange’s choices throughout her life…those that are both admirable and questionable…and leaves you both aghast and angry at the obstacles she faced and hopeful for a world with women like her in it.

If you like sharply drawn characters and a strong sense of place and time…and don’t mind making the trek up and down the emotional scale with your protagonist, Hooper’s Learning to See is a great choice for a 384 page adventure!

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