“In 1918, a young and bright-eyed Dorothea Lange steps off the train in San Francisco, where a disaster kick-starts a new life. Her friendship with Caroline Lee, a vivacious, straight-talking Chinese American with a complicated past, gives Dorothea entrée into Monkey Block, an artists’ colony and the bohemian heart of the city. Dazzled by Caroline and her friends, Dorothea is catapulted into a heady new world of freedom, art, and politics. She also finds herself unexpectedly falling in love with the brilliant but troubled painter Maynard Dixon. Dorothea and Caroline eventually create a flourishing portrait studio, but a devastating betrayal pushes their friendship to the breaking point and alters the course of their lives.
The Bohemians captures a glittering and gritty 1920s San Francisco, with a cast of unforgettable characters, including cameos from such legendary figures as Mabel Dodge Luhan, Frida Kahlo, Ansel Adams, and D. H. Lawrence. A vivid and absorbing portrait of the past, it is also eerily resonant with contemporary themes, as anti-immigration sentiment, corrupt politicians, and a devastating pandemic bring tumult to the city—and the gift of friendship and the possibility of self-invention persist against the ferocious pull of history.
As Dorothea sheds her innocence, her purpose is awakened and she grows into the figure we know from history—the artist whose iconic Depression-era photographs like “Migrant Mother” broke the hearts and opened the eyes of a nation.“
Penquin Random House
Everything I have ever loved that revolved around culture came from the magnificent inspirational topography of California into my New York-born, Utah-raised heart! I had wanted to live in California since I was a tween so that I could follow the footsteps of John Muir through Yosemite seeing the Fire Falls with my eyes instead of just through the print of an Ansel Adams B&W photograph. I wanted to wear black and white checkered Vans before stepping onto the pier and white sands of Newport Beach, or holding hands with Mickey Mouse walking through Main Street USA at Disneyland. The biggest influence though was a woman who took her camera snapping photos of the underprivileged in San Francisco. She also taught me empathy through the hardships of the migrants from Oklahoma to California, just to pick fruit to provide for their families after they were left with nothing in their own hometowns. Dorothea Lange and her iconic photographs were the reason that I searched out the adult classics like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Without Dorothea Lange I might not have ever cared about the experiences of the people, who to be honest lived 60+ years before I was even born, those poor, resilient people who had to leave Oklahoma and traveled to California just like the Joads.
All those childhood dreams came true, when as an adult, my husband and I moved to California.
So, when I accidentally happened upon a NetGalley advance readers copy of The Bohemians and found out it was a historical fiction (my favorite genre) about Dorothea Lange and her Chinese assistant I was hungry to read the book. My heart was elated with joy when I was given the chance to read it! I didn’t know much about Dorothea’s early life in San Francisco, just a lot of her life after her divorce from Maynard Dixon and living in Berkeley, so what a treat to be able to have a fleshed out story of Ay-yee (who is reimagined as Caroline Lee by author, Jasmin Darznik.)
The Bohemians is told through all the senses. I could see, the coastlines of the Bay, smell the eucalyptus and pine while driving with Dorothea and Maynard, to what I can only assume is Stinson Beach for their picnic. I can hear the sounds of China Town in the early morning while the community sets up their wares in their small store-fronts and smell the deliciousness of roasting chicken and duck at lunchtime. It would’ve been wonderful to witness the Bohemian life of Monkey Block, or Montgomery Block as it was called by those who weren’t familiar with the area, but reading about it is as good as it can get. Coppa’s in their original setting was something I would have also like to experience even though I have seen photos of Coppa’s when it moved to Pine Street. I could feel the pain that Caroline experiences after her attack by John Pharrell Jr.
Ms. Darznik’s research and imagination created the perfect mix of fiction and non-fiction. Sometimes, if you didn’t know, you would think all of the stories was a true story of two strong, independent women, who do everything in their power to become a success at running a business in a time where men had all the control. This story is timely in that it covers race, inequality, and the power of how people can change the world. Caroline might not have been but a blimp in Dorothea’s real-life since we don’t hear anything after Dorothea’s portrait studio shuts down, but what Caroline embodies is the real struggles that Chinese women and Chinese in California as a whole struggled with — the lack of respect, the lack of opportunity, the lack of identity. Honestly, without those Chinese Immigrants, the California elite wouldn’t have had a mode of transportation across the nation by train, nor the roads that took them through the Sierra Nevada’s to other states from Northern California. Those immigrants, just like the migrants from the midwest embodied the spirit of California- the resilience to push forward when all the world was trying to hold them back.
The Bohemians is the perfect book to read when you need adventure, but also want to learn how to see those who consider themselves invisible. Invisible isn’t good, especially when beauty, class, and ingenuity should be celebrated like the people in this book.