Saturday, June 18, 2011

Review: The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2004

The story of a pioneering woman artist

The story of Canadian artist Emily Carr ( 1871 - 1945)  begins in 1906 as Emily returns to the land of her birth after years of art school in England and  America. Here on the west coast of Vancouver Island she hopes to escape the suffocating conventions of Victorian life and the expectations of her family. She finds freedom and a real sense of belonging on the Indian reserve and forms a close friendship with Sophie, a Squamish basket maker and her growing interest in Indian culture becomes a passion and determination to paint their totem poles, to visually record their symbolism before they are completely decimated.
 Alone or with a single Indian guide she faces the dangers of traveling deep into the British Columbian wilderness to visit isolated , and sometimes hostile villages.

"This Tanu father cried with wrenching formality for his hapless sons. Whatever it meant to the Haida, to her, this Eagle Father also cried for the smallpox dead at Raven House in Cumshewa. he cried for every father's son sent to war. He cried for Sophie's children, and for Sophie. He cried for Haayydzims, and Muldo and Tuuns, some Gitksan fathers' sons, for Harold, and for all the beaten, disfigured, lost. His tears shut no one out".........Chapter 39

As her painting progresses her longing to improve her technique takes her to Paris where she is influenced by the work of new artists like Matisse and Picasso and she returns to British Columbia with renewed determination to paint from the heart of herself, to portray her spiritual belief that  'God breathes in the forest' , to capture the soul of the land in her work.

' As she began to paint, she saw rhythm in the tree's repeated forms, in the upward reach of the trunk furrows, its bare hanging withes reaching down, its laden boughs tangled with those of other trees. In one sweep she united the branches into a mantle of cedars. her swinging arm became a swoop of greenery, boughs from adjacent trees breathing into each other, supporting each other, all one.'..........Chapter 36

It would be two decades before Emily Carr's work received recognition but today her work is represented in major art galleries all over the world.

I loved every word of The Forest Lover and it is a certainty for one of my favourite historical fiction novels this year. It's always a pleasure to read about someone previously unheard of and Susan Vreeland's feeling for her subject is obvious in the way she captures the spirit of a true artist. The descriptive prose is gorgeous and brings the grandeur and beauty of the Pacific NorthWest vividly to life and the history of the region and the native people was fascinating. Plenty of extras with a map, a conversation with the author and book club questions and a book I'm happy to recommend wholeheartedly.

Historical Fiction Challenge


  1. Did you know that Emily Carr herself wrote some books? I have them all; they're wonderful! She's as good a writer as she is an artist.

    The Book of Small
    Klee Wyck
    The Heart of a Peacock
    Growing Pains
    The House of Small

  2. Sorry that last one is supposed to be The House of All Sorts

  3. Thanks Trish - I remember them being mentioned in the book. I'll have to have a look and see if they're available here.

  4. My very first audiobook that I truly loved was The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland. I fell in love with audiobooks and the author. Will make a note to pick this one up.

  5. I found my copy in a secondhandshop and have had no luck finding SV's other books in the library so far.
    I have yet to experience an an audiobook!