The Bohemians by Jazmin Darznik (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5
This is ostensibly a fictionalized history of Dorothea Lange — world renowned photographer known for her Depression era work (see photo below). It primarily focuses on her early years in San Francisco from from her penniless arrival in 1918 through to her success as a photographer. It incorporates much of the interesting cultural history of the time — immigration policies and fears, polio, the 1918 flu, the aftermath and impact of the San Francisco earthquake, Orientalist fever, human trafficking, the Mission home for girls, and the group of Bohemian artists living inexpensively in the Monkey Block (an iconic SF building on Montgomery). Except for Lange’s feelings during the events in the story, everything described is documented history (and vividly portrayed).

The real story in the book has only a tenuous link to reality. It is the colorful fiction built around Lange’s Chinese assistant known in history as “Ah Yee” or “the Chinese Girl.” Nothing but these thin labels has been documented, but in Darznik’s book, Caroline Lee (the real name of Ah Yee) is fully fleshed out in a way that takes an historical footnote and blossoms it into a full, vibrant, and essential human being. Lee’s backstory, her talent for fashion and design, and the intolerance she faces (from minimal snubs to outright violence) is the real story here. Oddly enough, the elements of Lange’s story — her volatile marriage to artist Maynard Dixon, the photographic topics she eventually took on, and her backstory (replete with childhood difficulties such as polio) is nowhere near as fleshed out as the story of her relationship with Caroline Lee, allowing the book to make a larger social justice statement.

Excellent descriptions of San Francisco as it was — both physically and culturally — with plenty of small details to remind us of elemental differences (such as having to take the ferry to Oakland because there was no bridge!). Solid Historical Fiction.

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