Diana Hartog's The Photographer's Sweetheart
(Overlook Press, 228 pages, $29.99 cloth) explores a very different aspect of the human condition. Her novel, based on the life of an actual man who lived in California during the first half of the century, is the story of Louie Olsen, a pedophile. He sees nudity as natural and children as manifestations of Paradise. He photographs them, touches them, talks to them about sexuality, teaches them about their bodies, watches them frolic naked in streams, loves their "child-ness".
What society considers perverted, Louie considers normal and innocent. He sees himself as having nothing to be ashamed of. He wants to harm no-one. In fact, he is obsessed by the spiritual and the philosophical, is knowledgeable about herbal medicine, believes in "a clean diet" and "quietude", doesn't smoke or drink. In other words, Hartog doesn't allow the reader an easy way out, doesn't allow Louie to be quickly and conveniently stereotyped. She forces the reader to consider him.
The book is divided into four sections. The first is a first-person account of Louie's relationship with a little girl named Gemma; the second, a series of letters he writes to his brother in Denmark (where he comes from); the third, court documents related to his arrest for committing lewd and lascivious acts; and the fourth, his stay with the Lang family, who believe in his harmlessness and stick up for him publicly. By the time we get to the court documents-detached and clinical-we've already gotten to know Louie and are, consequently, inclined to view him in a less black-and-white way than we otherwise would have. Once again, we are forced to confront our own attitudes, our cultural upbringing, our social rules. How "bad" is Louie, and who is to decide? He is unequivocally, unapologetically himself, which is what gives the narrative its strange power.