The Forest Lover

by Susan Vreeland
ISBN: 0670044814

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A Review of: The Forest Lover
by Linda Morra

Vreeland's depiction of Carr in The Forest Lover is rendered with great complexity. Author of The Passion of Artemesia Cass (2002) about the life of artist Artemesia Gentileschi, she is once again entering into the task of collecting the elements of an artist's life and nature and weaving them together for the purposes of what she calls "speculative fiction." In The Forest Lover, she closely adheres to the factual record available on Carr, yet suspends her entire literary creation on imaginative "hooks" that are sensitive, imaginative, wise and emotionally truthful. Carr is depicted as multi-faceted: at turns, irascible, ironic, compassionate, emotional, capable of great kindness. At one moment in the novel, Frances Hodgkins-their meeting is also fictionalized here-confronts Carr about the more contradictory aspects of her character, even of her canvases, by pointing out her antithetical impulses: "You want it both ways, don't you? Just like your totem paintings. Accuracy and expression. You want everything both ways."
Vreeland also wants it both ways: she wants to be faithful to the record and yet take the imaginative liberties necessary to convey why Carr was a woman to be admired. As the novel's epigraph, written by Carr, indicates "[t]here is something bigger than fact." If, as Vreeland notes in her afterword, Carr "reach[ed] for the essence of her painting subjects" in her art, so she "want[s] to offer the spirit of her courageous and extraordinary life" in her novel.
This she does. Beginning with her voyages to various Native villages spread across the West coast, Vreeland examines how it is that Carr came to forfeit a life of romantic love for that of her art. Her commitment to painting relates not only to her sense of the importance of art, but also to her love of the forest. Paradoxically, as Vreeland shrewdly demonstrates, her desire to paint the forest was also a way to curb her loneliness:
"You Who Dwell in the Forest,' Emily murmured into the hush. You have given me the longing to paint. You see I am lonely and have nowhere to pour my love. Give wisdom to my eyes to see into the soul of this land. Though I will through the valley of the shadow of a far and lonely wilderness, help me to hear a spirit song.'"

If she was "passionn" about anything, it was "[o]nly for art." Carr is the "forest lover" who was willing to take all risks and venture out into remote forests and, in place of children, would "birth paintings." British Columbia might have been considered by her contemporaries to be "the edge of nowhere, but [it was clearly her] center."
The exertion involved in being this kind of lover is shown to be at times exhausting and depressing, as it surely was. That struggle was mitigated by her menagerie of animals and what were sometimes regarded as her oddly matched friends. Vreeland perceptively shows how the friendship between Sophie and Carr might have developed in diction and expression that is reminiscent of Carr's own style: "The corners of [Sophie's] mouth [. . .] all her features lifted in a smile generated by something beyond belief, a smile that gathered Emily into it." Whatever one might conceive of the force of talent behind her paintings or even her writing, Carr's personality, the complexity of her impulses, her daring and courage as she visited the West Coast forests and painted in a style that shocked members of her community and her family-these facets about Carr, as Vreeland dextrously shows, continue to make her a most engaging subject.

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