The Forest Lover
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.
: Salmonberry, 1906
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.
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.Vreeland, as the Squamish would say, has made strong talk. (New York Newsday)
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