Learning To See: A Review

*this post contains affiliate links

January 11, 2019

Learning To See by Elise Hooper

learning to see 2

Genre/Categories: Historical Fiction, Fictionalized Biography, Photography, Internment Camps

Thanks to #WilliamMorrowPB #WilliamMorrowBooks #HarperCollins for my free copy of #LearningtoSee by Elise Hooper in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

“It takes a lot of practice to see things are they are, not as you want them to be.”
(P 121)


Learning to See is a fictionalized biography inspired by real life photographer, Dorothea Lange. We first meet twenty-two year old Dorothea Nutzhorn in 1918 as she arrives in San Francisco with her best friend. Through wit and a determination to create her own life far from her home in the Northeast, Dorothea changes her name to Dorothea Lange, takes a risk in opening a portrait studio, and marries an older established artist, Maynard Dixon. Dorothea’s portrait studio enjoys success and it provides a steady and dependable income for their growing family of two children. When the economy collapses in the 1930s, economic troubles place tremendous strain on an already fragile marriage and Dorothea desperately seeks out ways to support her two young sons and a drunken, disillusioned, and out-of-work husband. As Dorothea’s portrait business declines in the economy, she begins to take pictures of the poor and desperate people on the streets of San Francisco. In addition, she travels throughout California and the Southwest documenting labor conditions on farms, gradually realizing that these pictures are more meaningful than what she produces in her portrait studio because her pictures from the streets and fields tell a true story of the economic hardships that people are facing. Later, the United States enters WW11 and Dorothea accepts a government job photographing the internment camps into which the Japanese have been placed. Not everyone appreciates seeing the truth of these pictures and she is censored, threatened, and discouraged. This doesn’t deter Dorothea from her travels, her photographs, or her purpose. There’s a dual timeline running through the story which allows the reader to know Dorothea at the end of her life.

My Thoughts:

Writing. Historical fiction fans will be eager to read Elise Hooper’s new work exploring the life of photographer, Dorothea Lange. The extensive research that went into the telling of this story is evident (the author also includes a few of Lange’s photographs at the end of the book). Not only is there an abundance of historical facts and descriptive details which enable readers to feel like they are experiencing life in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, but the author also puts a great deal of effort and thought into building a case for the possible motives that inspire Dorothea to take certain actions. I had a difficult time accepting the decision Dorothea made for the care of her children, but the details in the story left me with a reasonable ability to understand Dorothea’s choices.

Themes. Certainly, some important themes include the plight of working mothers in that time, the hardships of the depression, marriage to someone who is not a full or dependable partner, loyal friendship and support from other women, making difficult decisions to follow your dreams/passions and accepting the consequences of that decision, taking risks, the effects of childhood experiences on adults, and character traits of pioneers.

More Than an Artist. Dorothea Lange is remembered today for her photography work and her indomitable spirit and determination. I think you’ll enjoy the historical setting and this imagined story of her life behind the facts. Throughout the story, the title of Learning to See takes on multiple meanings. As an artist, Dorothea is not afraid to photograph what she actually sees and not what others want or expect to see. As a mother and wife, Dorothea sees (or intuits) the emotional help her troubled son needs, and she also sees the truth of her marriage to Maynard. Dorothea sees injustice and has a vision for meaningful work, and she is willing to take the risks to follow her passion despite the sacrifices. She is not afraid of hard work or activism, and perseveres in spite of obstacles.

“I was a photographer of people–men, women, and children who worked, suffered, rested, and loved. …. I lived for the moment when time slowed, when I could capture an expression or gesture that communicated everything. I needed more of those moments. If I was going to give up my family, every second needed to count. The sacrifice had to be worth something bigger than me.” (p 179)

Recommended. I love stories of real women, and even though Dorothea might not be the most well liked person, I’m highly recommending Learning to See for fans of well written and extensively researched historical fiction, for readers who are looking for a story of a strong, independent, and pioneering woman, and for those who want an engaging page turner. Learning to See is nicely paced with well drawn characters, and some readers might want to know that it includes some romantic details. It would make a good book club selection because of interesting discussion topics.

If you might enjoy reading more histfic about Japanese Internment Camps, I suggest The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford.

Additional Information. The following links are a sampling of what’s available about Dorothea Lange on YouTube:

Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life

American Masters: Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange Biography

My Rating: 4.5 Stars (rounded to 5 stars on Goodreads)

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Learning to See

Learning to See

Pub Date: January 22, 2019

For my review of Elise Hooper’s first book, The Other Alcott, click here.

Meet the Author, Elise Hooper

Elise Hooper

Although a New Englander by birth (and at heart), Elise now lives with her husband and two young daughters within stone-skipping distance of the Pacific Northwest’s Puget Sound. When she’s not writing, she’s in her classroom making American history and literature interesting for high school students.

She’s drawn to historical figures, especially women, who linger in the footnotes of history books yet have fascinating stories waiting to be told.

Please learn more: http://www.elisehooper.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/elisehooperauthor/
Instagram: elisehooper
Twitter: @elisehooper

Happy Reading Book Worms

“Ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.”
~Rainer Maria Rilke

“I love the world of words, where life and literature connect.”
~Denise J Hughes

“Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad ones.”
~Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

“I read because books are a form of transportation, of teaching, and of connection! Books take us to places we’ve never been, they teach us about our world, and they help us to understand human experience.”
~Madeleine Riley, Top Shelf Text

Looking Ahead:

Next week, I’ll post a review of Meet Me At the Museum by Anne Youngson.

meet me at the museum

I’m also reading Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin (a work in progress and review date TBD)

leadership in turbulent times


Check out Hillsdale College Free Online Courses

I’ll be updating my Winter TBR as I read and review selections. So check back often!

Don’t miss my Most Memorable Reads of 2018 post here.

In Movie News….

Reese Witherspoon to produce “Where the Crawdads Sing” and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

And….here’s the trailer for Where’d You Go Bernadette starring Cate Blanchette.

(You might want to put these three books on your winter to read list in preparation!)

Sharing is Caring

Thank you for reading today! I’d be honored and thrilled if you choose to enjoy and follow along, promote, and/or share my blog. Every share helps us grow.

 Let’s Discuss

Tell me about your reading preference. Do you appreciate a fictionalized biography or would you rather read a narrative non fiction account of a person’s life?

***Blogs posts may contain affiliate links. This means that at no extra cost to you, I can earn a small percentage of your purchase price.

Unless explicitly stated that they are free, all books that I review have been purchased by me or borrowed from the library.

Book Cover and author photo are credited to Amazon or an author’s (or publisher’s) website.


Author Spotlight

April 21, 2018

authors spotlight

Do you like to attend author events? Or is an author event something you’ve always wanted to do?

This weekend I was thrilled to attend a Historical Fiction Author Brunch sponsored by a local library where (l to r) Michelle Gable (A Paris Apartment & The Summer I Met Jack), Susan Meissner (As Bright As Heaven), and Laura Kamoie (America’s First Daughter & My Dear Hamilton) were panelists.

author panel

It was a delightful morning surrounded by bookish peeps, delightful bookish conversation, and delicious food. I eagerly looked forward to this event because I had read two of the three authors’ works.





Interesting discussion among the panelists included how much all three enjoy the research part of writing historical fiction (sometimes more than the writing!), and they also mentioned the perils and the pleasures. Perils included going down rabbit trails and accumulating too much information or not enough. For example, as they approach reading a book as part of their research, they realize it’s common to take away only one small fact or detail from the entire book that they’ve read. All three of them emphasized that the research process is extremely pleasurable for them. I’ve always appreciated the quantity of research that goes into writing histfic. Now I won’t feel sorry for them!

Authors & Their Work

 It’s wonderful to hear authors speak of their work, and here are a few highlights. In addition, I’ll indicate which of their works I’ve read along with my review or Amazon summary and star rating.

Author: Laura Kamoie

A unique fact about Laura Kamoie’s most recent books is that she wrote them in partnership with Stephanie Dray. Co-authorship is a strategy their editor advised against; however, it has worked well for them. In fact, their editor reports that he can’t tell which one has written which section. Laura is a historian (previously taught history at the Naval Academy) and spoke extensively about the amount of research she conducts for her writing. She indicates that she and Stephanie had so much information for My Dear Hamilton that their editor made them cut thousands of words (and it’s still 652 pages!). Laura spoke earnestly about her passion for writing stories about women in history whose contributions have been overlooked. She is not surprised that when she researches men that there are thousands of primary source documents available; whereas for women there might be only 200 available. I appreciate hearing stories about independent and strong women and will continue to be interested in her work.

American’s First Daughter (Full Review Here)    

America's First Daughter

 My Rating: 5 Stars twinkle-twinkle-little-startwinkle-twinkle-little-startwinkle-twinkle-little-startwinkle-twinkle-little-startwinkle-twinkle-little-star

My Dear Hamilton (I’m in the process of reading this…review coming soon)

my dear hamilton

Amazon Rating: 4.8 Stars

Author: Susan Meissner

As Bright As Heaven is the only Meissner book I have read. I’d like to read her back list some day. Whereas Laura Kamoie focuses on writing biographical historical fiction, Susan likes to create fictional characters and families and keep the historical focus on the location, time period, and events. She greatly enjoys creating imaginary people and families. One interesting fact about As Bright As Heaven is that she structured it in a similar way as The Poisonwood Bible (one of her favorite books) in that the story is told from a mother’s and her girls’ perspectives. She reports that she read Poisonwood Bible several times in preparation for writing a book like As Bright as Heaven (the only way they are similar is in the structure).

As Bright As Heaven (Full Review Here)

As Bright as Heaven

My Rating: 4 Stars   twinkle-twinkle-little-startwinkle-twinkle-little-startwinkle-twinkle-little-startwinkle-twinkle-little-star
(I always debate between 4 & 5 stars….this could easily be a 5 star read for me because I keep thinking about this story and recommending it!)

Author: Michelle Gable

I haven’t read any of Michelle’s work. A Paris Apartment received mixed reviews and I’m still on the fence about it. I’ll probably read it now that I’ve met the author. Look at the reviews to see what you think! One interesting fact that Michelle shared with us is that she wrote it (every word!) entirely with pencil using a pad of paper sitting behind the screen at her children’s softball games. Multitasking at its finest! She wrote The Summer I Met Jack the same way and its release date is 5/29/2018.

A Paris Apartment (not yet read or reviewed)

a paris apartment

Amazon Rating: 4.0 Stars

The Summer I Met Jack (release date: 5/29/2018)

the summer I met jack

Happy Reading Bookworms!

“Ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.”
~Rainer Maria Rilke

“I love the world of words, where life and literature connect.”
~Denise J Hughes

“Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad ones.”
~Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

“I read because books are a form of transportation, of teaching, and of connection!
Books take us to places we’ve never been, they teach us about our world, and they help us to understand human experience.”
~Madeleine Riley, Top Shelf Text

Looking Ahead:

Come back Friday when I’ll be highlighting my favorite, most compelling character from my April reading and offering a Link Up opportunity.

Sharing is Caring

I’d be honored and thrilled if you choose to enjoy and follow along, promote, and/or share my blog. Every share helps us grow.

 Let’s Discuss!

I’d love to hear about authors you’ve met or would like to meet!

I was excited to hear that Fredrik Backman is doing an author event at the Barnes & Noble (in Huntington Beach for SoCal peeps), but was discouraged that attendees have to get there by 9:00 a.m. to get a wrist band which will give them a place in line for the evening event. No thanks! I’d much rather buy a ticket on line than to spend all day trying to get one. But if you’re in SoCal and want to see him, the information is on the Huntington Beach Barnes and Noble website. He’s also at different locations in the U.S. as part of a book tour. I imagine they’ll be quite popular events!