In her Washington Post review of the book, Wendy Smith writes of Alan Cheuse's To Catch the Lightning:
The sketch of [its protagonist's] early adulthood at the turn of the 20th century is a skillful but standard portrait of an ambitious young man unsatisfied by his successful career and restless in domesticity. (His wife. . .is stereotyped as the spouse who Just Doesn't Understand.) When [Edward] Curtis takes one of his frequent walks along the beach to get away from the crowded Seattle household containing his mother, mother-in-law and sister-in-law as well as Clara and the kids, the ensuing epiphany also sounds familiar. He observes an Indian woman digging for clams and decides to take her photograph, a far cry from his professional, commercial portraits. "Their eyes met. Deep and deep and deeper -- he saw far into her foreign soul." The encounter with the Other is a fiction staple, and Cheuse follows a well-worn path in depicting a white man discovering a more authentic way of life in a nonwhite society.
While I would certainly agree with the reviewer's judgment of the novel--"standard," "stereotyped," and "familiar" are definitely terms I would use in characterizing it, although the word "ponderous" also seems appropriate as a way of describing its style and structure--I encounter very few "historical" novels that are not explicable in such terms. This one's a "true story" about Edward Curtis, a 19th century photographer whose chief claim to fame was his attempt to "document" the "fading way of life of the American Indian," as the book's jacket flap has it. Everything about it justifies Wendy Smith's conclusion that it trods a "well-worn path" in its depiction of a white man's sympathy for Indians, a feature of the novel that becomes obvious in just its first few pages and makes reading the whole of it (492 pages) laborious indeed.
In a review on this blog of Lilly Tuck's The News from Paraguay (which I found equally bland and banal), I professed uncertainty about "what the purpose of historical fiction is supposed to be. Merely to re-create the past? Why? It is, of course, interesting enough to discover what 'things were like' in the past, but what does reading a novel about the past--deliberately presented as 'about' the past--do for us that just reading well-researched history can't provide?" I'm no clearer now about the ultimate purpose of historical novels--at least about their literary purpose--than I was then, although fiction such as Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt (reviewed here) certainly does demonstrate that the historical past can be used for artistic purposes that have little to do with history per se, the attempt to pin down what "things were like" as an end in itself.
Like two of Cheuse's other novels, The Light Possessed, about Geogia O'Keefe, and The Bohemians, about John Reed, To Catch the Lightning focuses on a particular historical figure, so they could all perhaps be called biographical fictions rather than historical novels built around fictional characters. And to that point Cheuse himself has said of this work that he's doing a kind of history in reverse, that "historians usually work from the outside in, and novelists move in the other direction." But of course this is an absurd justification on the face of it. Historians work with materials actually at hand, are careful (usually) not to go beyond what the record can support. A novelist invents and supplements. Unless Cheuse has uncovered minutely detailed records of what the "characters" in his novel--at least those that aren't themselves mostly invented--really did say, think, feel, and do in all of the situations depicted, To Catch the Lightning can't really be compared to history writing at all, certainly not in the smug way in which Cheuse implies that his own moving "in the other direction" is in fact superior to the "outside in" approach of historians.
Yet a novel like this still unavoidably asks that it be taken as a contribution to historical discourse, an account of the life of Edward Curtis that goes beyond what mere history could provide and thus illuminates such an historical personage and his times even more fully. And, in a period when "serious" novelists are turning to historical fictions in what seems to me unprecedented numbers (all five of the 2008 National Book Award fiction nominees could arguably be called historical novels), recreating the historical past in this way has increasingly become a privileged strategy among both writers and critics, garnering many critical plaudits and prestigious prizes. It is apparently one of the most recognizably "novel-like" things a writer might attempt these days.
But this is so only because most historical novels, as To Catch the Lightning illustrates, invoke the most conventional, hidebound notions of what a "novel" is and does, reinforced by these novels' emphasis on story--enhanced by the broader arc of historical "story" that such novels want to expropriate--on "character" as embodied in "real people," on staged scenes dominated by "realistic" dialogue, all wrapped up in a transparent prose style occasionally colored by poetic flourishes and applications of "psychological realism." This approach threatens to recalcify fiction in its own historically contingent, now thoroughly reductive form. A "novel" becomes simply a narrative of events modeled on the writing of history, except that the characters can be made up and the story tweaked here and there. If the true purpose of the historical novel is to return us not just to the recounted days but also the literary assumptions of yore, then I guess its practicioners are to some extent succeeding.
Many of the fans of this earnest brand of historical fiction must no doubt discount "literary" values entirely, except in the simplistic sense I've discussed. One reviewer of To Catch the Lightning suggests it "will appeal to a wide audience interested in the history of the American West, Native American culture, and the origins of photography." What about readers interested in aesthetic experience, in provocative writing, in, well, literature? What would reading this novel add not to our understanding of "the origins of photography," information about which is available in countless nonfiction books and essays, but to our appreciation of the origins of fiction in literary art? It's not so much that such questions continue to go unanswered in the consideration of history-based novels; as far as I can tell, they are never asked.