'I'm dreadfully hankery for forest'
Canadian painter Emily Carr was drawn to native culture decades before her countrymen saw its value.
Canadian painter Emily Carr once said, "Nobody could write my hodge-podge life but me." With self-effacing humor, she claimed that biographers couldn't "be bothered with the little drab nothings that have made up my life."
To Susan Vreeland, who's quickly become America's most popular biographer of famous artists, that must have sounded like an irresistible challenge. Her bestselling "Girl in Hyacinth Blue" followed the life of a single Vermeer painting from the 20th century back to its creation in 17th-century Delft. The feminist theme laced delicately through that novel's closing chapters became the heavy-handed impulse of her next book, "The Passion of Artemisia," about the Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi.
Now, with "The Forest Lover," her story of Emily Carr, Vreeland has found perhaps the most appropriate venue yet to express her own exuberant feminism and spirituality. What's more, by immersing herself in Carr's extensive writings, Vreeland has picked up the tenor of the painter's language - her eclectic mysticism, emotional devotion, and single- mindedness. The result is a life story that's sympathetic to a fault.
Born in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1871, Carr grew up the youngest of five sisters. The death of her parents during her teen years left her exposed to the strict rule of her eldest sister, whom she strained against throughout her life. In part to escape that control, Emily dropped out of high school and went to San Francisco to study art at the age of 16. Three years later, she prevailed on her guardian to let her study in England. But between her frustration with instructors who would teach "ladies" only water colors (not the manly oils) and 18 months in a sanitarium, her trip seemed largely a failure. Feeling weak and confused, she returned home "to the starched and doilied parlor of the yellow, two-story bird cage of a house in Victoria, B.C. where she'd been born, and found only hypocrisy and criticism."
Vreeland picks up the story here when Emily is 33, already a confirmed eccentric, an embarrassment to her prim sisters, who can't fathom why she wants to wander around the forest looking at pagan relics and "socializing with primitives." To Carr, the attraction is profound, though vague: She hopes to "discover what it is about wild places that call to her with such promise." Repeatedly, she canoes alone up the west coast of Vancouver Island to meet skeptical Indians whose knowledge of white people is confined to narrow-minded missionaries or cruel officials.
Even as Carr dedicates herself to understanding, painting, and preserving these native cultures, the Canadian government is engaged in a blunt policy of assimilating what it calls the "First Nations," a process of cultural eradication that involves outlawing native ceremonies, evicting tribes from ancestral lands, and forcing the light of Christianity on a dark race.
The novel is made up of little episodes, sometimes only thinly connected, that hopscotch through Carr's life. We land on her efforts to teach prissy women how to paint, a trip to France that introduced her to Post- impressionism, arguments with her aesthetically dim sisters, her time as a landlady, and an affair that Vreeland invented to dramatize Carr's sexual ambivalence.
Carr's strangely childlike personality comes through well - her guilelessness, her straightforward devotion (or rejection), the enthusiasm that outstrips her diction. Asked how she can paint the wind, Carr answers, "By making the trees go whiz-bang and whoop it up." But in general, these scenes, which should be small gems, are merely small - inadequate to fill in the complicated itinerary of Carr's life and lacking the psychological depth to illuminate her mind.
Vreeland seems unwilling to put much distance between her and her subject, the kind of distance in which the author might have found room to explore the real complexity of this woman's animus. That's especially evident in the many scenes of Carr trekking bravely through the forest, talking only to herself or her dog, looking to paint new Indian totem poles before they're cut down for museums or allowed to rot on the ground. Vreeland repeatedly runs up against the narrow limits of Carr's vague spirituality. Asked why she wants to make pictures of these poles, she effuses, "Because they show a connection. Trees and animals and people. I want white people to see this greatness." Again and again, her misty-eyed enthusiasm for "something deeper," for "the spirit of a thing," fails to enunciate anything but a kind of sincere but gassy euphoria.
Not surprisingly, Carr was a great fan of Walt Whitman, but the many passages of "Leaves of Grass" quoted here are a reminder of how difficult it is to articulate that mystical sense of communion. Frankly, Carr's language can't do it, and Vreeland's determination to stay confined in her subject's vernacular keeps her from doing it either.
Ultimately, two very different friends of Carr emerge as more interesting characters than she is. One is Howard, a mentally impaired man who was brutalized as a boy for his interest in the Indians, and the other is Sophie, a Squamish basket maker who suffers the death of one child after another. Both these people, the kind of strange oddballs that Carr sympathized with, live stretched in painful suspension between cultures that won't accept them. Howard is eventually driven insane by his guardian's insistence that he abandon the Indian songs that animate him, and Sophie is wracked with guilt for alternately betraying her ancestral god and her Christian God. These are sensitive portraits, drawn with all the necessary pathos, and they indicate the deeper mysteries of faith intimated by Carr's paintings.
But through most of this novel, Vreeland seems unwilling to mix the primary colors on her narrative pallet to produce anything equally suggestive or subtle. Only the final chapters rise to that challenge and provide some truly beautiful, stirring writing. Carr had to be patient for decades, waiting for critics to recognize the power of her dark, lush work. Readers of "The Forest Lover" won't be disappointed for exercising the same perseverance.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.