The Healing of Natalie Curtis

May 20, 2024 | Book Reviews

In the early 1900s, the U.S. government pushed immigrants to assimilate into American culture. Authorities frowned upon immigrants using their native language or keeping their particular customs. Schools were taught in English; students were required to speak it. All in the name of Americanization: to promote patriotism, democracy, and productivity.

Besides learning about this in U.S. History class, I heard about it from my Dutch great-aunts who grew up during that time. Dutch language and traditions were frowned upon as America became a homogenous melting pot without individual distinctions of race or culture. My aunts’ laments saddened me.

Despite any good outcomes, this push hurt more than immigrants. It also impacted indigenous people. To supposedly soften the blow, the government gave Native Americans land in exchange for renouncing their traditional clothing, music, dances, and way of life. 

Until an American woman named Natalie Curtis showed up in Arizona in 1903.

Natalie is known as an ethnomusicologist. With the support of a family friend, President Theodore Roosevelt, she gained the trust of eighteen tribes all over the States and recorded their music for posterity. This true story is beautifully brought to life in Jane Kirkpatrick’s biographical historical fiction, The Healing of Natalie Curtis.

Natalie’s journey calls to mind the folks who interviewed former slaves for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938. Author Michelle Shocklee wrote about that in Under the Tulip Tree, featured on the blog in February, 2022.

The collection of Slave Narratives preserves 2300 true, heart-wrenching first person stories, also found on Project Gutenberg. The book by Natalie Curtis, The Indians’ Book (1907) preserves Native American music and legends of the Dakota, Cheyenne, Apache, Yuma, Navajo, Pawnee, Hopi, Arapaho, and many more tribes.

Revell (September 7, 2021)



My Thoughts

In this novel, a Yuma woman asks three healing questions, “When was the last time you sang? When was the last time you danced? When was the last time you told your story?”

Such a beautiful way to reach the heart and soul of a person. This is one of many things I learned about the Yuma tribe while reading this remarkable biographical historical fiction.

I’d never heard of Natalie Curtis before, but I wish I had. In fact, considering all she did, I should have. 

In the late 1800s, Natalie is a classically trained pianist and vocalist in New York City. After her emotional breakdown and years of poor health, Natalie’s brother George invites her to join him out west. His years in drier climates had improved his asthma. With the hope of recapturing her zest for life, she heads west with George in 1902.

While in the Southwest, Natalie learns about terrible injustices toward Native Americans due to the U.S. government’s Code of Offenses. The Code not only confines the natives to reservations, it also bans singing, dancing, and speaking their native language. In fact, if they sing their songs, they are punished.

Their traditions were being wiped out, in the name of assimilation into American culture.

This sets Natalie in motion. This lover of music could not bear to see the suppression of music and cultural identity. Her passion becomes a drive not only to capture their songs, but to give a voice to the voiceless. 

But alone she can’t do much. Fortunately, in 1903, she takes advantage of her ties to President Teddy Roosevelt, a family friend, and appeals to him for his support.

Natalie works hard for the indigenous peoples. Even with setbacks and self-doubts, she finds new meaning and purpose in looking beyond herself. Ahead of her time, she defies conventions as a single woman. She leaves behind the wealth, comforts, and higher social status of her home in NYC—against her mother’s wishes—in exchange for a nomadic lifestyle in the desert, traversing the country to record songs of numerous tribes. 

The author captures the pain of Native Americans who’d fallen silent. But Natalie won’t let them be forgotten. As she fights for rights of Native Americans, she finds healing for herself. 

Considering this was a time when women’s freedoms were limited, Natalie’s endeavors are all the more admirable. But her brother George deserves credit, too. He’s the the kind of brother every girl needs, alongside her every step of the way. As he comprehends the importance of her work, he postpones some of his own plans. 

Some readers might be bothered by a white woman, as an outsider, obtaining access to the songs and stories of the Native Americans. Is it good or is it exploitation?

But if not Natalie Curtis, then who? Natalie brought her passion and musical gifts to the tribes to draw out their own passion and gifts. She earned their trust, and kept it. Because of her, the music did not die out. She preserved and affirmed the value of their culture. 

With sensitivity and respect for Native Americans, this book shines with its well-grafted research lending authenticity. The author’s note at the end reveals all the care and effort that went into this venture. 

Join me for some Q & A with author Jane Kirkpatrick.

Author Jane Kirkpatrick

Questions about The Healing of Natalie Curtis

I worked for a tribe in Oregon for 17 years and attended their “medical sings” (as they called them) where music was meant for healing. I never forgot that. And I wondered how one woman could have brought about change—and changed her own life too through music.

Jane: I wrote during the pandemic! So my usual visits to museums, libraries, etc. weren’t as available as with previous stories. Trying to respect traditions without being able to easily access tribal historians, for example, presented challenges. I relied on Natalie’s own work and how she understood her Native friends/interviewees at that time. 

I found reports of Indian agents that helped get a sense of what life—from a white perspective—might have been like for native people. I had to decide where to start the book (the night of her New York Philharmonic debut) and where to end it (the publication and delivery of her book to the Native people who had allowed her to record them). 

Jane: I make a timeline of what I called “shared knowings” using the works of people who have already written about my subject—if there are any. There were two non-fiction books about Natalie. I also had her book and her other writings. 

A biography allows one to write about what someone did and when they did it. Fiction allows one to explore why they might have done what they did and how they might have felt. The latter is what I’m filling in. What made her have her collapse in 1897? How did she feel traveling west? How did her relationship with her brother impact her life? All good grist for fiction that is meant to move people.

Jane: I had lots of concerns. Being respectful while at the same time trying to be true to “shared knowings” in history, knowing that history wasn’t written by the Indigenous people. Even right now—do I write the words Indigenous or Indian or Native American? 

I relied on my own relationships with native friends to help me decide whether to use the word Indian or Native American, for example. I had a native friend read the manuscript and make suggestions that were helpful. A bookstore in Oregon (Sunriver Books and music) arranged for a discussion with author Craig Johnson (Longmire fame who is white but has native characters in his books), David Heska Wanbli Weiden (a Native who won four Spur awards from Western Writers including for Winter Counts), and I talked about writing native. 

I loved David’s comment that there is no Native writer police. If a writer does her homework, is respectful of another culture and is open to possible changes in what she thought she knew, that will come through in the work. You can listen to the discussion here: A Conversation on Writing Native.

Jane: I had to do a lot more research about Teddy Roosevelt! I learned that Natalie’s uncle had been a roommate of TR at Harvard and that was part of how Natalie was able to connect with him. I tried to find the recordings but didn’t discover them (at the University of Indiana) until after the book came out and that was from contact with a relative. 

A few months after the book released, I received an email from Natalie’s great-nephew. He was generous with his comments about the book and we’ve continued a correspondence as I’ve written a screenplay based on it. 

Oh, but you asked about research: I was fascinated by the passion of Indian advocates at that time and their efforts to get rid of the 1883 Code of Offenses and how Natalie was mentored by them. The recording device—the Edison—proved interesting to learn more about. 

I also discovered that Natalie did attend the Rose Parade in 1903 and that there wasn’t a football game that year. Perhaps because in 1902, Michigan State had beaten Stanford badly! There wasn’t a football game for 15 years. I also hadn’t known that tourists paid to stay on the reservations which is how Natalie began her “spy” work among the Hopi People. 

Jane: Before I write any of my novels, Natalie’s story included, I answer three questions from the book Structuring your Novel by Meredith and Fitzgerald. What is my intention, what is my attitude (what do I feel deeply about), and what is my purpose in writing this story (or how do I hope a reader will be changed by reading this book). 

I write many pages but get the answer down to one sentence each that I post at the top of my computer so when I get lost in telling the story, I can look at those answers. It keeps me writing and not going off on tangents which I love—like what colors of Crayon were available in 1907?

Questions about writing

Jane: A northwest author, Molly Gloss and her book The Jump-off Creek about a strong Oregon woman homesteader grabbed me years ago. I read all Ms. Gloss’s work that celebrates pioneering women. Ivan Doig, a Montana writer, and his book English Creek inspired me. One of my greatest thrills was to be on a panel with him and Barry Lopez talking about writing. They are both National Book Award winners. 

As a reader growing up in Wisconsin, I was weaned on the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. And I have always loved biography but there weren’t a lot written about women for a young reader. Of course, Willa Cather who wrote about a woman’s relationship to the land. And I have loved Susan Meissner’s ability to move between historical and contemporary periods. Wisconsin writer Kathleen Ernst is a master of that genre. I also read non-fiction works like those of Frederick Buechner, Parker Palmer and Jan Richardson, to name a few. 

Jane: It begins with the story and that’s usually about a character. I find those stories in footnotes. For example, All Together in One Place was inspired by a footnote that read “today we met eleven wagons headed back east, all driven by women, their men having been buried on the Trail.” I told my husband, “Now there’s a story! What do you suppose happened? And at one point did those women know that they couldn’t go home again?” 

I would tell my women friends about that footnote and they’d speculate with me. I’d tell my men friends I wanted to write about what happened and they’d give me a hard time saying no one would read a book about all the men dying. But it wasn’t a story about the men dying. It is a story about getting bad news in life and how when that happens we want to go back. We don’t get to and it is a mark of our character how we allow others to hold us up in our wilderness time until we can find a new direction. That book is my biggest seller. 

I’ve also had a few people bring stories to me. A Light in the Wilderness is one of those stories about one of the first African American women to come across the Oregon Trail and her amazing journey. An elementary school was recently renamed for her and the principal of that school said he’d first learned about Letitia Carson from my book.  

My Carol Award winner, Where Lilacs Still Bloom, came to me from a descendant. I kept putting her off but eventually visited the lilac gardens this woman developed. When I  heard her story, I was hooked. 

Portrait of a Woman collection is based on my own grandmother who was an early photographer in Winona, MN. She also ran studios in Wisconsin and North Dakota. She once told me about a photograph of herself. She said she loved the dress in the photo, but her mother had said it was her “kept woman dress. It was no such thing.” She didn’t want to tell me why her mother said that. 

I was 16 when she shared that. I never forgot it and wanted to discover the story behind it (and still get invited to the family reunions). I did! The first book, A Flickering Light, won the WILLA Literary Award and was Library Journals  top ten list for 2009. As I said, it’s the unanswered question.

Jane: I’m a frustrated poet and wrote what I called wretched little poems when I was a child. Teachers kindly encouraged my writing and what they thought was unique in my storytelling. But I didn’t start writing for others to read until years later as an adult, when my husband and I moved to our remote ranch. 

Before moving, I took a creative writing class at my local community college (in Bend, Oregon). My instructor was Bob Welch, author of numerous wonderful, inspirational books. Back then he was a sports writer but he was very kind and encouraged me to sell some of my assignments that were essays and non-fiction pieces. Several got published. 

When we moved to our ranch and got electricity, I’d write and let family and friends know that we were still alive. One of our friends said when they got my letters, they turned off the TV and read them aloud because they were like a chapter in a book. That inspired me to try to write about our journey from suburbia to Starvation Lane. That book became Homestead (1991). 

My first novel, A Sweetness to the Soul (1995), came from reading an historical essay about a couple and their life with the Wasco, Warm Springs, and Paiute people in the 1850s. I happened to be working for that tribe and thought it was a great story about how they lived well with their neighbors. I couldn’t write it because it wasn’t my family, I hadn’t lived in the area for 100 years, and I’d never written fiction. 

Somewhere I read that if you can write an essay that moves people, chances are you can write fiction. Several of my essays garnered fan letters and phone calls from across the country. But it was my husband saying if I thought it was a great story, I should just write it. If people didn’t like it, they could write their own version. 

So I committed to writing it (from 5:00-7:00 a.m.). The next day I met a man who put me in touch with someone who knew about that family. A door was opened. I’ve been forever grateful. That first novel came out when I was 49 years old so I was a late starter!

My writing while directing a mental health clinic taught me that words had power and that’s especially important for fiction.

Jane: Listen to that inner voice coming from a story that won’t let you go. Don’t worry about whether it’s trending. By the time your book gets published there’ll be new trends. But the story will keep you going through the muddle in the middle, through the Harpy’s telling you it’s not worth your time or you’re not good enough to write it. 

Make the commitment. As the lyrical 18th century poet Goethe wrote (I’ll paraphrase), what people don’t realize is that once you make a commitment to something, Providence moves and things begin to happen that you otherwise never could imagine. 

I’ve been blessed with each story commitment to have assists that I call Divine Research. I would never have discovered those details—or what the story had to tell me—if I hadn’t committed to the work. We don’t have control over whether our work gets published or good reviews. We only control showing up. So I’d encourage aspiring writers to show up.


If you like historical fiction based on the lives of actual people, you might enjoy my novel, A Hundred Magical Reasons. This story spotlights L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, his friendship with a young girl, and his impact through the decades. Set in Holland, Michigan, this pre-published dual timeline novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. Read more and watch the book trailer here. The story recently won Scrivenings Press novel contest and is currently under consideration at another publisher.

If you like regional fiction and/or small town/rural stories about family dynamics and secrets, you might enjoy my re-launched novel All That Is Hidden. Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968, the story spotlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.

  • Winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award
  • Semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest


Jane Kirkpatrick Bio

Jane Kirkpatrick is a New York Times and CBA best-selling and award-winning author of over 40 books and 50+ essays. Her many historical novels, most based on the lives of actual people, speak of timeless themes of hardiness, faith, commitment, hope, and love.

Her works have sold over 2 million copies, and have won literary awards such as the Wrangler (National Cowboy Museum), WILLA Literary (Women Writing the West), Will Rogers Medallion (Will Rogers Foundation), and the Carol (American Christian Fiction Writers).

She is a Wisconsin native and graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Communications and Public Address and holds a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in Clinical Social Work. Prior to her writing career, she worked with Native American families on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon as a mental health and early childhood specialist for seventeen years. She was also the director of the Deschutes County Mental Health Program in Bend, Oregon. Jane and her husband Jerry now live in Redmond, Oregon with their dogs. Learn more on her website.


Join me next time for a visit with author Jennifer Sienes.

Meanwhile, have you read The Healing of Natalis Curtis or any others by Jane Kirkpatrick? Do you enjoy stories set in the western frontier? Answer in the comments below.

Ever reading,


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  1. Elizabeth Daghfal

    So many thoughts with this one! First, I had an step-greataunt who moved from Ohio to the West to help the Native Americans. Second, what a story about this musician! What a cool story to unearth. And it opened my eyes to something I hadn’t realized. That the government was controlling so much of what happened on the reservations. Somehow I thought they had to change if they lived OFF the reservation, but the reservation itself was considered their own nation and they could do what they wanted on it. But maybe that was a change brought on by Natalie and others like her???? Finally, the comment about the healing of music. I read a study recently that compared the feeling of connection when we shake hands, talk, hug, and sing together. The closest connections were felt when we sing together. So the power behind this story really resonated with me.
    Once again, I love how fiction opens up doors of life that we on our own could never experience. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    • Laura DeNooyer

      Thanks for your thoughts, Elizabeth! Such an interesting study on music and the feeling of connection. Though I’d never doubt the power of music, I would not have guessed it’s more powerful than touch or talk.

    • Jane kirkpatrick

      Thank you so much for your comments. And yes the sovereign nation concept came later than when Natalie and others were advocates. I loved your comment too about singing and connection. Fascinating.

  2. Mary Larson

    So often we judge the past by how we think today, as well as by what we know today. It seems Natalie Curtis wanted people to hear the music of the Native Americans. In this day and age we might find it wrong for her to teach when a Native American would do better. We can be grateful for the interest Natalie Curtis had for this music. In her lifetime the voice of the Native Americans were silenced or misinterpreted.

    This book is definitely one I will put on my “want to read” list. This is an interesting time in history to cover. I’ve never read anything about Natalie Curtis and her work. It sounds fascinating!

    • Laura DeNooyer

      Good point–we too often judge the past by our current standards and thinking. I hope you enjoy the book!

    • Jane kirkpatrick

      I’m glad you’ve put the book on your list. I hope you’ll find additional insights as your own are appreciated.

  3. Nancy Radosevich

    I love stories set in the western frontier. The Healing of Natalie Curtis sounds fascinating. I appreciate learning about the background and process, including the challenges the author faced in writing this novel. Thank you for introducing me to this novel and letting me “meet” Jane Kirkpatrick. I will be reading her books!

    • Laura DeNooyer

      I agree. I often enjoy the Author’s Notes at the end as much as I enjoy the novel.

    • Jane kirkpatrick

      Laura is a great interviewer! She asked the kind of questions to give a good picture of Natalie. I’m glad you have discovered Natalie.

  4. Anita Klumpers

    The title interests me. It could refer to Natalie being healed, or the healing brought about by Natalie for others via her efforts to preserve native music.
    Actually everything here is interesting! The woman herself, the time she lived in, how she came to want to preserve native music in a time when anything to do with tribal culture was severely discouraged.
    Just as interesting: Jane’s research, her other books, her process and inspiration.
    Hope this book opens minds and encourages respect for the gifts God lavished on all cultures for all cultures to enjoy!

    • Laura DeNooyer

      I love thinking of that title having a double meaning. Thanks for pointing that out!
      Yes, God’s gifts are lavished on all cultures!

  5. Barbara M. Britton

    Hi Jane and Laura. This sounds like an excellent subject and story. I love books that have history to them.

    • Laura DeNooyer

      I also love the fact that the protagonist is a real person.

    • Jane kirkpatrick

      The title does have a double meaning! I had wanted it to be The Musical Healing of Natalie Curtis. But leaving the musical out opened the door you described. Double meaning titles intrigue me. One of my favorites is Terms of Endearment. A legal and emotional connection. Thanks for your insights!

  6. Laura D

    I like the premise of this book because it features a woman who is looking for healing out west but finds it in the most unlikely place. I will be reading this book because she uses her gifts to help herself and others. Thanks for reviewing this book on your blog.


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