The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland

The Forest Lover tells the life of Emily Carr, a Canadian painter who endeavours to capture the untamed beauty of the Northwest landscape in her paintings and preserve the memory of Aboriginal totem poles that is slowly dying.

After reading The Passion of Artemisia, I started collecting Susan Vreeland books for its intimate portrayals of women and their passion in art. Emily displays the common qualities of Vreeland’s selection of figures; an ardent spirit and inimitable courage. The fictional account, based on some historical facts, depicts the journeys of Emily along the windy coast of British Columbia visiting old villages of the indigenous people, traipsing amidst the dense foliage of the old forests, and her struggle of identity in her art.

Vreeland’s writing, blustery and mournfully introspective, almost echoes the atmosphere of the scenery. It is not perhaps a coincidence that it mirrors the way Emily delivers her brushstrokes on canvas, catching the spirit of the elements and revealing its dramatic meaning.

Speculative fictions are, at best, a hit or miss for me. However, in this little glimpse of Vreeland’s Emily, I found her gutsy and engaging. Her independent streak naturally drove her to go against the grain as illustrated, among other things, by her foibles with her stiff sisters, critics and narrow-minded society of women attending her painting classes; her friendships with Sophie, a Squamish basket maker and Howard, a wounded man with the soul of a native; and travelling around wearing men's boots.

The stories of Sophie and Howard, the heart breaking cultural eradication of the indigenous people perhaps carry the heavier moods in the book. Narrative gets tedious at some point in that the many little episodes of Emily’s life create a collapse of attention and in few instances, unmet resolution. But there are moments that linger like readings of Walt Whitman, bonding times with her friend Jessica, attending illegal potlatches, walks in the woods and the mystery of totem figures.

Vreeland's little tribute to one of the original figures in the Northwest modern art movement only propels me to read Emily Carr's own writings and personal diaries, a toast to a powerful woman of her time.


In her acclaimed novels, Susan Vreeland has given us portraits of painting and life that are as dazzling as their artistic subjects. Now, in The Forest Lover, she traces the courageous life and career of Emily Carr, who-- more than Georgia O'Keeffe or Frida Kahlo-- blazed a path for modern women artists. Overcoming the confines of Victorian culture, Carr became a major force in modern art by capturing an untamed British Columbia and its indigenous peoples just before industrialization changed them forever. From illegal potlatches in tribal communities to artists' studios in pre-World War I Paris, Vreeland tells her story with gusto and suspense, giving us a glorious novel that will appeal to lovers of art, native cultures, and lush historical fiction.

Title: The Forest Lover
Author: Susan Vreeland
Genre: Art, Historical Fiction, Cultural
Published: 2004
Publisher: Penguin Books
Rating: ♨♨♨ 1/2 (3 cups and a half)