The Forest Lover

The Forest Lover

3.7 15
by Susan Vreeland

View All Available Formats & Editions

It was Emily Carr (1871-1945) -- not Georgia O'Keeffe or Frida Kahlo -- who first blazed a path for modern women artists. Her boldly original landscapes are praised today for capturing an untamed British Columbia and its indigenous peoples just before industrialization would change them forever. Now Susan Vreeland brings to life this fiercely independent and… See more details below


It was Emily Carr (1871-1945) -- not Georgia O'Keeffe or Frida Kahlo -- who first blazed a path for modern women artists. Her boldly original landscapes are praised today for capturing an untamed British Columbia and its indigenous peoples just before industrialization would change them forever. Now Susan Vreeland brings to life this fiercely independent and underappreciated figure. From illegal potlatches in tribal communities to prewar Paris, Carr's story is as arresting as it is vibrant. Vreeland tells it with gusto and suspense in a glorious novel that will appeal to lovers of art, native cultures, and lush historical fiction.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The Canadian artist Emily Carr (1871- 1945) could be a feminist icon. Spirited and courageous, inspired by an inner vision of "distortion for expression" and by a mission to capture on canvas the starkly fierce totem poles carved by the Indian tribes of British Columbia, Carr endured the disapproval of her family and of society at large until her belated vindication. One of the pleasures of this beguiling novel based on Carr's life is the way Vreeland (Girl in Hyacinth Blue) herself has acquired a painter's eye; her descriptions of Carr's works are faithful evocations of the artist's dazzling colors and craft. No art schools taught the techniques that Carr felt suitable to the immense, rugged landscape of British Columbia. Moreover, when she ventured into isolated tribal villages and befriended the natives, braving physical discomfort and sometimes real danger, she was accused of "unwholesome socializing with primitives." Drawing on Carr's many journals, Vreeland imagines her experiences in remote areas of B.C. as well as in Victoria, Vancouver and (briefly) France. There are few dramatic climaxes; instead, Vreeland emphasizes Carr's relationships with her rigidly conventional siblings and with her mentors and colleagues. She vividly describes the obstacles Carr faced when she ventured into the wilderness and in her periods of near poverty and self-doubt. A fictitious French fur trader introduces a romantic element, which may offend purists. Much of the suspense comes through Carr's affectionate relationship with a real woman, Sophie Frank, a Squamish basket maker who loses nine children to white men's diseases. Adding to Sophie's emotional desolation is the torment introduced by inflexible Christian dogma that alienates tribes from their native traditions and spiritual beliefs. Vreeland provides this historical background with the same authoritative detail that she brings to the Victorian culture that challenged Carr's pioneering efforts. Her robust narrative should do much to establish Carr's significance in the world of modern art. Agent, Barbara Braun. 17-city author tour. (Feb. 9) Forecast: Vreeland's sizable audience should guarantee this book an early place on the charts. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Canadian artist Emily Carr (1871-1945) loved to paint her native British Columbia, especially its forests and indigenous people, but she wanted to catch the spirit and feeling of her subjects, not just render photograph-like works. Defying convention as well as her prim Victorian sisters, Emily ventured into British Columbia's wilderness, befriending the natives and often enduring considerable physical hardship to paint native totem poles and villages as an attempt to save them from oblivion. This captivating novel, drawing on Carr's many journals, traces the artist's life as she struggles to learn the techniques to convey her modern vision while trying to make a living. Vreeland, best-selling author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of Artemisia, captures Carr's obsession with art while providing the historical background and vividly describing her paintings. The energetic narrative conveys the drama of Carr's solo journeys, her pain over the fate of native peoples, and her intense love of the wilderness. Thanks to this book, her work should receive more of the recognition it deserves, for she truly was a pioneer. Karen White reads with energy, making the artist come to life. The tape quality is excellent; highly recommended for large libraries.-Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This novel portrays 20 years in the life of British Columbia painter Emily Carr, who was determined to preserve the Indian heritage, especially the totem poles, of the Pacific Northwest in her art. Living in the late 1800s, when women were supposed to be subservient homemakers and not adventuresome and out on their own in the forests, Carr knew what she wanted and then went after it, even when this meant doing without food. Although she is about 30 when the story opens, teens will relate to her rebellious streak, her firm adherence to her beliefs, and her unusual friends. Those interested in art history will appreciate the discussions of technique and reading about her year in Paris as she learned from prominent artists. The novel is decidedly heavier reading than the author's Girl in Hyacinth Blue (MacMurray & Beck, 1999), and sometimes the Indians' dialogue is in pidgin English. Four black-and-white reproductions and the color dust jacket represent a few of Carr's works.-Claudia Moore, W. T. Woodson High School, Fairfax, VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Fictionalized biography of painter Emily Carr by bestselling Vreeland (Girl in Hyacinth Blue, 1999; The Passion of Artemisia, 2002). Carr (1871-1945) was perhaps the first Canadian woman artist to achieve international recognition, partly thanks to her studies abroad (in America, London, and Paris) and partly thanks to her association with the famed Group of Seven, a Toronto-based salon of painters who revolutionized Canadian art. In her third historical, Vreeland adds some invented characters and situations, but for the most part offers a faithful account of Carr's career. Born in Victoria, British Columbia, she lost both of her parents early in life and was raised by her domineering elder sister Dede, who disapproved of Emily's interest in painting and tried to prevent her from enrolling in art school. Because of an interest in Native American art that was unusual for her times, Carr lived for a while among the Squamish Indians of Vancouver Island, studying their crafts and rituals. There, she met Sophie Frank, a Squamish basket weaver who became both a friend and inspiration, as well as Claude Serreau, a French-Canadian fur trapper who was briefly Carr's lover. The Indian themes that dominated her early work were not well received in Canada, so in 1910 Carr traveled to Paris to immerse herself in the new styles that were coming into vogue among modernists. In France, she befriended New Zealand painter Frances Hodgkins, with whom she spent a happy summer working in the countryside, but she found as little encouragement in Paris as she had in Vancouver. After a year, she returned to Canada and dedicated herself to painting the Native American villages, houses, and totem poles that werefast disappearing. Eventually, she mounted an exhibition at the National Gallery in Ottawa that established her as one of the leading artists of her day. A sensitive, sober account of an interesting woman and her times, narrated with respect for the factual record and a minimum of heavy breathing. Agent: Barbara Braun
From the Publisher
Vreeland, as the Squamish would say, has made strong talk. (New York Newsday)

Read More

Product Details

Viking Penguin
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.32(w) x 9.36(h) x 1.13(d)

Read an Excerpt

: Salmonberry, 1906

Letting her cape snap in the wind, Emily gripped her carpetbag and wicker food hamper, and hiked up the beach, feasting her eyes on Hitats’uu spread wide beneath fine-spun vapor. Cedars elbowing firs and swinging their branches pushed against the village from behind. One wayward fir had fallen and lay uprooted with its foliage battered by waves and tangled in kelp. Wind whipped up a froth of sword fern sprouting in its bark. At last, she was right here, where trees had some get-up-and-go to them, where the ocean was wetter than mere water, where forest and sea crashed against each other with the Nootka pressed between them.

She had been to San Francisco and found it cramped, to London and found it stifling. She had ridden the Canadian Pacific Railway across the Rockies, breathless at their jagged power, and had galloped bareback across a ranch in the Western Cariboo, swinging her hat and whooping to the broad sky. She’d gone home to the starched and doilied parlor of the yellow, two-story bird cage of a house in Victoria, British Columbia, where she’d been born, and found only hypocrisy and criticism there.

But this, oh this, the west coast of Vancouver Island, wave-lashed and smelling of salt spray and seaweed, the teeming, looming forest alive with raven talk and other secrets, the cedar bighouses scoured by storms to a lovely silver sheen, the whole place juicy with life, was more wild, more free, more enticing than she remembered it when she’d come here eight years earlier. Or was it she that was different?

Lulu, grown into a young woman now, clamming on the beach, remembered her as soon as she’d climbed out of the hired canoe that had delivered her here from the steamer dock a mile away. Now, with Lulu carrying Emily’s canvas sketch sack, a pack of barking, leprous-looking dogs came tearing toward them. “Stay down,” Emily ordered, planting her feet wide apart.

Lulu ran them off, her braids flying, her long indigo skirt billowing, clams clacking in the basket on her back. She came back to Emily. “Sorry. They awful mean.”

They approached the largest of the bighouses, ancestral dwelling lodges of many families, this one painted with a huge faded red sun. Lulu held open a hide hanging in the doorway, and motioned her inside. Don’t you dare go. Her sister Dede’s angry command issued in their parlor two days before still grated on her mind. Just who do you think you are ... ?

A thrill of defiance rippled through her as she stepped in.

Smells of fish and grease and the rich spice of wood smoke engulfed her. Women in striped cotton dresses sitting on tiers of platforms around the fire murmured and gave her curious looks. Some stopped what they’d been doing. An old woman in a red head scarf watched her with narrowed eyes, probably wondering what a white woman wearing a strange plaid English tam perched on her head was doing in their isolated village.

“Hello,” Emily said.

Only a twitch of her bottom lip showed that she’d heard.

“The Nootka aren’t much for friendliness,” the captain of the steamer had told her a couple of hours earlier.

“But I’ve arranged to stay with the missionaries,” she’d said.

“They packed up and left a month ago. I’d reconsider if I were you.”

She’d felt the captain’s words as a blow beneath her ribs. Dede would have gloated if she knew. As it was, Dede had given her a tongue-lashing about her mania for tramping through the wilderness with Indians, calling it a disgrace to the family. Still, she’d stepped off the steamer onto the dock at Ucluelet, and now, in this bighouse, she shoved back the fear that she’d made a mistake.

Lulu nodded to a man who spilled himself out of a hammock hanging from thick beams still shaped like tree trunks. His hair was cut bluntly at his shiny copper jaw, and he wore loose woolen trousers and leather shoes, but no socks.

“Chief Tlehwituua,” Lulu announced, full of respect, and spoke a few words to him in Nootka, to which he responded.

Emily felt his milky-eyed scrutiny go right through her. Who are you? she was certain he was asking. It was the same question she’d often asked herself. Impulsive rebel or lonely old maid? Aimless hobbyist or committed painter?

“Chief Tlehwituua say he knew another missionary family would come. Tide that go out always come back,” Lulu said. The chief spoke again. “He want to know where is your husband.”

“I’m not a missionary’s wife! Tell him, Lulu. I only came to visit the missionaries before. Tell him you remember me. Emily Carr.” She set down her bags and took off her hat.

“Not a missionary wife!” some other voice said in English.

Murmurs. Smiles. Someone laughed. A man slapped his thigh. The chief held up his hand and the room fell silent. Apparently he didn’t remember her. Maybe it was her close-cropped hair. When she’d been here before she had long hair, wound and pinned up like any proper Victorian lady. Now, to them, it probably looked like a bumpy brown knit cap.

The chief consulted with Lulu. “If not a missionary wife, why did you come? He want to know,” Lulu said.

“I came to paint this time. Ask him if I may. The village, the beautiful canoes.”

She dug out her half-filled watercolor book from her sketch sack to show her paintings of Beacon Hill Park in Victoria, woodland and seacoast in England. She felt apologetic. The English trees were puny compared to the mighty Douglas-firs and cedars here. Namby-pamby. A pathetic offering.

Why paint here, he might ask, and what would she answer? That she hoped that here she might discover what it was about wild places that called to her with such promise.

The chief made a circle with his hand, as if holding a brush, and nodded at her tablet.

“He want that you paint now.”


Was this an invitation or a command? Better to assume it was a command. Could she paint under the heat of watching eyes, paint without sketching first? The years in art school in San Francisco and England hadn’t taught her that. Time to prove to herself what, for the last dozen years, she’d only hoped she was.

She opened her watercolor set, a curiosity to him. He stuck his nose down over each color and sniffed while she looked for a subject. The raised platforms along the walls converged at a corner post carved into a man holding a fish, the most striking thing in the house. That would do just fine. It was a difficult perspective. She faltered. It wasn’t right. She ripped off the page and people murmured. She began again, adding the fishing-man figure, baskets, stacks of blankets, carved cedar chests, coils of bull kelp hanging on the wall, and, draped over poles, strips of dried fish looking like curled brown rags. She tried to work quickly, in case they made her leave. But where would she go? The steamer wouldn’t call again at Ucluelet for a week.

When Emily finished, Lulu asked, “You want to paint me?”

Ugh! Portraits were either stuffy or dead. She wondered if Lulu had ever seen her own face. “Do you really want me to?”

Lulu thrust her head forward. “We don’t say things we don’t mean.”


Lulu knelt by the fire, and Emily began. Each time she looked up, Lulu’s dark expressive eyes were watching her. Older children and the woman in the red head scarf cast surreptitious glances but did not venture to come close.

“You see Nuu’chah’nulth women in Victoria?” Lulu asked.

“You mean what white people call Nootka?” Emily felt embarrassed. She couldn’t tell the difference between Nootka and Songhees. “Sometimes. Songhees women too.”

“Where do they live?”

“Songhees live at a reserve. Maybe Nootka camp on beaches.”

“What do they in Victoria?”

“Sell berries and fish and baskets.”

She didn’t want to tell her how the Songhees were being pushed out of the reserve in Victoria’s Inner Harbor that had been promised to them forever.

“What more?”

She thought of Wash Mary starching her pinafores on the back porch when she was a girl. “A Songhees lady used to wash our clothes, but that was twenty-five years ago.”

Lulu’s eyes burned with intensity. “She lived with you?”

“No. She lived in a little house beyond Chinatown.”

Emily rinsed her brushes. “There. Finished.”

Lulu studied the painting as if looking away would make it disappear. “That’s me? You make me nice.”

The red-scarfed woman came forward to have a look. Her expression revealed nothing. She walked away, opened a floor chest, wrapped herself in a dark blue blanket decorated with rows of mother-of-pearl buttons, made her way back to the fire, lowered herself onto a wooden box, pulled two hanks of gray hair bound in red cords forward over her shoulders, tapped her chest, and raised her chin in a pose.

“My grand auntie,” Lulu said.

Emily grinned. What she’d really come for could wait. She wiped sweat from her forehead, and set to work again.

The auntie was of this place. Wind and sun had sculpted her face as they had her cedar house. Her laugh lines and sorrow lines were like gullies in a rugged landscape. Flames lit one high cheekbone, left the other in shadow, giving her a secretive look.

Joy rose in her. They were letting her. The wonder of it.

The auntie grinned and said something in Nootka that made Lulu giggle. “She remember you.”

The auntie passed her index fingers over her own eyebrows and flapped her hands outward at her temples.

“She remember your eye hair, like wings.”

Emily laughed. Her one eyebrow too widely and highly arched gave her the look of someone questioning everything.

“She remember you laughing. You’re bigger now, she say.”

True. She’d gone to England a shapely hourglass and had come home as what polite people would call solid, filled-in at thirty-three. Eighteen months imprisoned in that rod-rigid Suffolk sanatorium where they promised to heal homesickness and anything else that ails a body with imposed bed rest and force-feedings of honey and jam and mashed potato mountains—that’s what did it.

“Bigger? Tell your auntie I can laugh bigger now.”

When she finished Auntie’s portrait, she set all three watercolors on a sleeping platform and stepped back, every muscle tight. “They’re for you.”

People crowded to see, speaking in Nootka. They opened a path for the chief and closed in behind him. After a few moments, he turned to her, nodded, and went outside.

“Does that mean he’ll let me stay and paint?”

Lulu snickered. “He always was let you paint. He just want to see you do it.”

Emily laughed a laugh of relief.

Auntie thrust at her a bowlful of salmonberries and said something Emily couldn’t understand.

“You sleep here,” a woman said. “Auntie wants.”

“That’s my mother, Rena,” Lulu explained.

Sleep with all these people? Married people? Old men? The chief? All in the same room? She didn’t belong here, but she didn’t belong in a starchy missionary house with the Ten Commandments plastered on the wall either. Too much like her sisters’ house embroidered with homilies everywhere she looked— enough to squeeze the spunk right out of her. But at least there she wouldn’t be squeamish about what went on around her.

“Tell her thank you. I’ll sleep in the mission house.”

The auntie scowled when Rena translated.

Damn. She’d made a selfish mistake.

“Sure not a missionary wife?” Rena asked.

Good Lord. A missionary’s wife, like Dede and Lizzie’s praying ladies stirring tea with Lizzie’s sacred disciple spoons, or wearing out the parlor carpet on their knees. She never knew when or where she’d trip over one. The mere thought of the missionary families’ Sunday School sprawling into every room of the house, and Lizzie and Dede’s double fury when she refused to teach a class, prickled her skin. That she hadn’t come to Hitats’uu for a missionary purpose inflamed Dede’s provincial propriety screaming against her “degrading notion to live with heathen aborigines in a siwash village. And for what purpose? Some unfathomable, unnecessary search for the authentic BC. Rubbish. It’s right under our roof.”

Emily heard herself laugh, throaty, deep, and loud. “No. Not a missionary’s wife. That’s one thing I’m sure of.”

“Klee Wyck,” the auntie said. Others repeated it, grinning.

“What does that mean?” Emily asked.

“Laughing One,” Rena said. “You.”

Emily laughed again to please them.

Read More

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Vreeland, as the Squamish would say, has made strong talk. (New York Newsday)

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >