The Forest Lover
by Susan Vreeland
Published by Viking
331 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
Historical novelists have a lot of decisions to make. Not just about what story to tell or even how to tell it, but about which slices of a life need to be illuminated to provide readers with the fullest, richest impact. Skillful novelists know just how to make those slices: the decisions they make are good ones. Less skillful novelists, not so much. It's only one of the things that sets the two groups apart.
Clearly, Susan Vreeland is a skillful novelist. More: relatively early in her writing career, Vreeland has discovered her oeuvre. The author of Girl In Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of Artemsia knows her way around the art world. She understands the difference between looking and seeing, knows the subtleties of burnt umber and sienna. And, most important of all, Vreeland truly gets the off-kilter way that artists view the world. Artists aren't like other people. Vreeland embraces this. And, in a very positive way, exploits it.
Vreeland's special view is as apparent in her most recent novel, The Forest Lover, as it has been in any of her work to date. Here Vreeland slices the life of Canadian artist Emily Carr. Carr's rich, vibrant paintings of the forests of the West Coast and the native totems she wanted to preserve through her art caused shock and outrage when first exhibited and eventually helped to secure her place as one of the most important of a small group of internationally known Canadian painters.
In The Forest Lover Vreeland's creative decisions are myriad and interesting. She's chosen to slice Carr's life down to the artist's most productive years: between about 1904 when the painter was still very much finding her style, through to 1930 when the Canadian art establishment finally caught up with Carr and recognized that her oils were worthy of attention. From Carr's perspective, at least as depicted by Vreeland, with her first group show in Toronto, the artist felt she had finally arrived. At least, she'd arrived enough that she no longer had to dismantle her fence to make stretchers for her canvases and she no longer had to breed sheepdogs and make pots to pay her mortgage.
Though Vreeland has introduced strongly fictional elements in The Forest Lover -- the whiff of a romance with another painter in France and a Quebecois trader in British Columbia, for instance -- for the most part, the author gives us beautifully reconstructed facts. It could be argued that the fictional romances Vreeland has included in The Forest Lover serve to give emotional balance to Carr's only true and documented romance: the one she enjoyed with the rugged wilderness of the northern coast of North America.
In the early portions of the book, we witness Carr's frustrations with the limits of her talent and her materials: she is unable, at first, to bring forth what she feels in her heart.
Sketching in watercolor, she laid in the main shapes. She squeezed her brush dry to lick up excess paint above the beak to lighten it where it reflected the sky. The eye had to be fierce. She darkened the heavy bone above it. It was still too tame compared to the strangeness and wildness of that glowering totem. She tried to be bolder and still be accurate, but how could she with watercolor? Those British academicians passing for artists, squeezing their brushes at the ferrules, had crippled her, made her work timid. If only she could talk with someone who knew how to make paintings express feelings.
Carr's major limitation proves to be entirely material: Like the proper Victorian girl she was, Carr was permitted only watercolors. The oils with which she would create her most luminous and memorable works would not become part of her creative arsenal until she went to France to study in 1910. In France she learns more than proficiency with oil paint: she relearns how to see:
Before her a pale sienna strip narrowed in the distance, lined by white rectangles. The sensation was eerie. Where there had been hayricks when she walked into Héloïse's cottage, now there were giant ochre blocks. Near them stood three connected trapezoids with defined planes, on four angled cylinders in Vandyke brown. It might be a horse. It didn't matter what it was. It was more interesting as shapes and planes. On the way home, shapes and planes overwhelmed her as the only reality. She breathed hard. This she could use to paint totems.
One of the things that The Forest Lover can approach only obliquely -- due to scope -- are the questions of appropriation and misappropriation that have, in many ways, prevented Carr from taking her full place in Canadian history. Carr's work was viewed controversially throughout her lifetime and has, for quite different reasons, continued to do so since her death in 1945. There are those within the Canadian art establishment who have accused Carr of appropriating native images for her own reasons. Others have suggested that, instead of painting the native images she appreciated so deeply, Carr should have stood up for British Columbia's indigenous people and corrected the wrongs that she knew were being done.
Yet stand, as I have done, in a gallery filled with the work of Emily Carr. Take in the majesty of the giant canvases: the perfection of the artist's virgin forests, the enduring dignity of her totems. And remember that the very best of them were painted at a time when their very creation was an act of rebellion: a shunning -- some would have said a shirking -- of convention. Years before Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keefe and Tamara De Lempicka fought their own battles to become "women painters," Carr moved mountains of tradition to spend weeks in the wilderness recording with her heart and brush at a time when women in North American couldn't vote and many couldn't own property or hold a bank account.
In The Forest Lover Susan Vreeland gives us an intimate introduction to a quietly courageous and deeply talented artist. Has she appropriated here? Perhaps. But if so, Vreeland's motivations could not have been far different than those of the artist she writes about. Vreeland brings us Carr's story with love and appreciation and the desire to lovingly present the truth as she sees it. Somehow that's enough. | February 2004
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Blue Murder, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.