The Bohemians brings 1920s San Francisco to life!
Just a few weeks ago I discovered a book called The Bohemians by Bay Area author Jasmin Darznik. The novel is a fictional account of the life of Dorothea Lange, focusing on her early years in San Francisco during the 1920s, before she became famous for her photographs of Depression-era America. Dorothea was married to the artist Maynard Dixon, a friend of the Bruton sisters, so of course I was immediately curious about the book. I was also thrilled that an author as accomplished as Darznik was writing about the same people and time period that I have been studying while writing my biography about the Brutons.
After purchasing and devouring the book within a few days, I am delighted to report that The Bohemians is totally successful in bringing this fascinating era to life. Well researched, inventive, and inspiring, this book tells a compelling story and is a great read. The critics agree - the novel is getting rave reviews (Oprah Daily called it one of the best books of 2021). For me, reading the book was an opportunity to be immersed in a world I have been studying for several years and to experience it in a very different way. Imagine my surprise when Imogen Cunningham and Ralph Stackpole, good friends of the Brutons, appear as characters in The Bohemians. The book also describes Lange's and Dixon's visit to Mabel Dodge Luhan's bohemian art colony in Taos, where Esther and Margaret Bruton spent the summer of 1929.
The Bohemians centers around San Francisco's "Monkey Block," a building which housed hundreds of artists, musicians, authors, and other creative types during the 1920s and 1930s. Helen Bruton lived in the Monkey Block in 1928, and Esther Bruton had a studio there in the 1930s, so the sisters were definitely part of the artistic community described in The Bohemians.(1) The Monkey Block is home to the other main character of the novel, Caroline Lee, a Chinese American woman who faces unspeakable racism as she navigates a time period and society that rejects her solely based on her appearance. Lee is loosely based on Lange's real-life assistant - someone we know almost nothing about - but Darznik fully fleshes out her story. By describing the anti-Asian hate Lee experiences, as well as other historic events such as the Spanish flu, the novel addresses serious issues, many of which have uncanny and disturbing parallels to what our society is facing one hundred years later. Although this is historical fiction, the novel feels especially relevant and timely.
I am so excited about The Bohemians not only because it describes a time and place the Bruton sisters inhabited, but also because Darznik's goal in writing her novel is similar to mine in writing a biography about the Brutons. Like Darznik, I am passionate about telling stories that haven't been told and giving voice to those who haven't been heard. The Bohemians provides unique insight into the inner lives and struggles of two inspiring women: Dorothea Lange and Caroline Lee. I hope to do the same for Margaret, Esther, and Helen Bruton when Sisters in Art debuts this October.
(1) Helen and Margaret Bruton, oral history interview by Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Dec. 4, 1964; San Francisco Call, Dec. 31, 1935.