Emily and Susan:
The Origin of The Forest Lover

The Discovery ...
The Exploration ...
The Novel ...

The Discovery

I stumbled onto a national treasure.

In 1981, on assignment for The Saturday Evening Post to do a travel story on Victoria, British Columbia, I found a rich combination of a Pacific Coast city with a highly visible British heritage, a thriving Native culture and art, and a history as a pioneering outpost. Walking along Wharf Street to photograph the Inner Harbor, I was stopped in my tracks by a reproduction of a painting in a window. A Southern Californian in British Columbia for the first time, as I was, is a person agape at green. Here was a painting of a forest in a myriad of greens--wet, overpowering greens that promised mystery. No earth. No path. No sign of man. Just dense, heavy boughs lying in curves on each other under a corner patch of sky. The foliage itself was the justification for the painting, if a painting needed justification when the love that had been poured onto that canvas was so clear. A courageous individual painted this, I reasoned, one who didn't bow to conventional composition, one whom I wanted to know. I went in.

Emily Carr: Cedar

Emily Carr, "Cedar Sanctuary," oil, 1942, 91.5x61 cm, Vancouver Art Gallery, VAG 42.3.71. © Vancouver Art Gallery

The Emily Carr Gallery, once her father's warehouse, introduced me to a woman who brought all the contrasting elements about this city together. Laid out in display were photographs of her on horseback, camping in a caravan in the forest, painting the ruins and totem poles in a Haida village. Here was a woman I'd never heard of, yet her paintings astounded me, her feisty personality amused me, and her independent life fascinated me.

As I became a little familiar with her work, I found it everywhere in Victoria--in other galleries, on note cards, mugs, and T-shirts in tourist shops. Then I began to run across her books. Her stories of her visits to Native villages won the Governor General's Award, Canada's highest literary prize. Intent on "knowing" her, I bought all of them--a large art book of her paintings, her stories, and her personal journals. They were strikingly self-revelatory. Cultivating her sense of alienation from majority society, celebrating her rebellious self, railing against narrow mindedness and provinciality, she had all the makings of a Byronic heroine. It astonished me, therefore, that never had a novelist attempted to make Emily Carr the subject of a work of fiction.

Though she died in 1945, she remains, "a living and vital Canadian presence, a legend, a national treasure."* It is not incorrect to say that a piece of British Columbia is Emily Carr.

The Exploration

During several years of reading works by and about her, I began to realize that my feelings for her ran too deep to go unexpressed, so I set out with my husband to trace her footsteps in preparation to write a novel.

Sue in Queen Charlotte Islands

Susan Vreeland at Tanu, Queen Charlotte Islands.


In 1989, after seeing her astonishing paintings at the Vancouver Art Gallery, we sailed through the Queen Charlotte Islands where we walked among uninhabited ruins encroached by rain forest in Tanu, Skedans, Cumshewa, and Ninstiints, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site with two dozen poles, erect, leaning and fallen. They would have thrilled Emily had she been able to go to this village on the extreme southern point of the archipelago. At Tanu, two Haida women, mother and daughter, kept watch over the single remaining totem pole, fallen and encrusted with lichen. Serving us tea on English china and bannock bread with jam, they related the sad tale of the decline of their ancestral home.

In 1992, we paddled our way in a kayak to Mimkwamlis on Village Island, where a few beams of a longhouse spoke of the fine potlatches once held there. Pieces of two rotting poles covered with moss remained from those Emily had painted. Thomas Sewid, the Mamalilikala watchman, invited us to visit his grandmother, the late Flora Sewid, wife of the Kwakwaka'wakw Chief Jimmy Sewid. "Oh yes, Emily came to our potlatches," she said, and then chuckled. "You know, they were illegal. I was only a little girl, but I remember Emily running with us to hide in the forest from the Provincial Police." Flora played her drum and sang, and wished us off with, "Halla kas la," go in peace.

At the U'mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay in Johnstone Strait, we listened to a young Kwakwaka'wakw girl spin the story of Dzunukwa, the mythical Wild Woman of the Woods immortalized in cedar pole carvings up and down the coast.

In the British Columbia Archives, I held in my hands her worn, underlined copies of Leaves of Grass and felt ineffably close to her. To skeptical minds in the twenty-first century, some of her thinking might seem rhapsodically romantic, and her pantheism a late bloom from the nineteenth century tree of Trancendentalism. Nevertheless, both have appealed to me. From her, I have learned heaps, as she would say, perhaps most significantly, that God shows His love for us in the beauties of His creation, and that the only appropriate response to such amplitude of love is gratitude. Either that, or a mad joy dance. Or a novel.

The Novel

The narrative of Emily Carr's life has not yet been embraced as a model by many women outside Canada. She is known by Canadian art historians and by women who have grown up in British Columbia's public schools where her stories of Native villages, or of running a boarding house, have been taught, but not the process of her own spiritual and artistic search, growth, and maturation as a woman as well as a painter and writer. Her choices, her pain of loneliness, her exultant adoration of nature, her example of sheer physical endurance and spiritual seeking have not yet entered women's lives beyond Canada. A novel could broaden her reach.

But why a novel and not a biography? There are already several fine biographies (see Bibliography page on this site), and I am not a scholar. Rendering the facts of Carr's life is not my discipline. Fashioning fiction is. Also, a biography would reach only those people who already knew of her. I wanted to reach those who didn't, who are readers of fiction, and through my fiction would be introduced to an extraordinary woman.

Susan Vreealands: The Forest Lover Cover

Then what are the differences between biography and fiction on a historical person? A biography reports while a novel shows. A biography is read in order to become informed about a person's life. A novel is read in order to feel what it might have been like to live that life. A biography is by nature inclusive, moving from birth to death, covering all the known events, accomplishments, activities, and people in her life. That is the raw material from which a novelist works. A novel is by nature exclusive, governed by themes rather than a complete chronology, developing only that time in a subject's life, as well as those events and secondary characters which serve the novel's themes. At the point when those themes are fully developed, conflicts resolved, and the issues reach a satisfying denouement, the novel is over, though the person's actual life may continue. Another difference is that a biography is written from the standpoint of an objective deliverer of information, a voice exterior to the character, whereas a novel could unfold from within the character, using the voice, that is to say the syntax, lexicon and attitudes of the person, revealing his or her inner life. And finally, a novel could employ secondary characters to illuminate the themes from different perspectives, each additional character having his or her own parallel or contrapuntal story.

Since Carr and British Columbia are so inextricably bound together, any novel about her has to explore the power of place to provide personal identity and fulfillment. In The Forest Lover, Emily Carr seeks to encounter and understand the British Columbian wilderness, and struggles to find a way to express her profound and complex feelings for it. In defying public scorn and hypocrisy by painting Native villages, and totem poles, she is caught in a dilemma of appropriating the very culture she reverences. Loving those in the margins of society, like herself, she develops deep connections with two people, an emotionally and physically damaged son of white missionaries who grew up in a remote Gitksan village, and the relentlessly tragic Squamish basket maker, Sophie Frank, under whose influence Emily shapes her individual religion to embrace a Native spirituality. Quirky, rebellious and independent, with a compelling urge to find Soul in a personal trinity of art and nature and God, Emily Carr ripens into a true original.

In reaching for the essence of her painting subjects, Carr wrote, "There is something bigger than fact: the underlying spirit."** As she wanted to paint the spirit of a thing, so have I wanted to offer the spirit of her courageous and extraordinary life. After years of research and ruminations, she is a mix to me now of what I've read about her, what she has written, both private and public, and what I have written of her.

When reading a novel treating a real life, it is wise to consider it speculative fiction presenting what could have happened. That Emily altered facts and chronology of her life to suit a story and to formulate a myth of herself permitted me to take certain liberties for the sake of the narrative or the development of themes. The characters in The Forest Lover are actual people, derivations of actual people, or, in a few cases, necessary inventions. For example, in order to show, and not merely report, certain aspects of Emily's character and history, particularly her difficultly with intimacy, I found it necessary to invent a man. The chronology of her trips, paintings, reviews, and certain events is approximated to fit the needs of the narrative. An actual Chronology can be found on this site. This book is not a life; it is a story. I invite you to let it work on you as you would any other novel.

*     Schiff, Bennett, "Canada's National Treasure," Smithsonian, March, 1999.

**   Carr, Emily, Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr. Toronto/Vancouver, Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1966.