The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland: A Discussion Guide

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Use this extensive guide when teaching Susan Vreeland's novel The Forest Lover. Vreeland 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.

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Students' Relationship with the Novel

Because emphasis is often placed on having students relate a piece of literature to themselves, to the world as they know it, and to other pieces of literature, topics and activities that fulfill these functions are marked as follows:

  • T-S — Text to Self
  • T-W — Text to the World
  • T-T — Text to Text

Suggested Scenes for Reading Aloud

  1. Emily Carr's first encounter with native coffin trees, p. 12-15

  2. Argument with sisters, and recollection of childhood, p. 24-9

  3. Native funeral of Sophie's son Tommy, p. 62-68

  4. Emily's first encounter with Dzunukwa, p. 162

  5. Painting Dzunukwa, p. 165-6

  6. Provincial Police raid on Kwakiutl potlatch, p. 173-177

  7. Decimation of the Haida, and ruin of their art, p. 210-212

  8. Death of Emily's dog, Billy, p. 241-246

  9. Passages from Harold's autobiography, pp. 256-258, 272, 273

  10. Argument with priest, p. 303-5

  11. Emily's private consummation in the wilderness, p. 310-11

  12. Emily's final monologue and spirit song in the style of Walt Whitman, p. 327-8

Topics for Class Discussion

  1. Emily is a complexity of contraries. Is she resilient or easily defeated? Loving or unloving? Rash or thoughtful? Intolerant or compassionate? Frigid or passionate? Prideful or humble? Analyze the conditions or situations bring out each of these qualities in her.

  2. What particular qualities and experiences did Emily have that supported her desires, and what qualities and experiences worked against those desires?

  3. One of Carr's painting teachers in France, Harry Phelan Gibb, tells Emily that she needs to paint out of her soul. Interpret what this might mean, and decide if she ever achieves it. What does she have to do first? Is there a connection between intuitive painting coming from one's soul or instincts, and technical painting coming from the application of aesthetic principles? Are they entirely contrary or can they be reconciled? If so, how? How does this dichotomy of artistic approaches apply to other arts?

  4. The Chinook word that means "land that gives comfort" is "illahee," which Harold longs for. Why are Kispiox and the surrounding villages so terribly important to him?

  5. Decide whether love of place can substitute for love of the more conventional sort. For what kind of person would it suffice?

  6. Explain how Emily Carr's art was influenced by the First Nations people of British Columbia. What prompted her to go to Native villages to paint in the first place, and what did she gain by doing so?

  7. How did colonial mentality and dominance of religion influence the relation of Emily with her sisters, and the two tragedies in the book? (T-W)

  8. Speculate on all the implications of the book's title, and of chapter titles. What is accomplished by the author naming the chapters?

  9. Ultimately, what is Emily's spirit song? Speculate what might be the words or refrain of it. What might have been the words to Sophie's?

  10. How does the Nuu'chah'nulth (Nootka) philosophy expressed in Lulu's phrase, hishuk ts'awaak, play out in the novel? Identify physical concrete signs of it as well as mental ones. To what extent does Emily come to see this philosophy to be true?

  11. Assess whether it is appropriate or acceptable for a non-Native individual to represent First Nations people and their culture and lives in art, both visual and literary. Is it only acceptable for an artist and writer to portray what they themselves have directly experienced? If so, did Carr directly experience what she painted? How deeply? Evaluate the handling of First Nations cultures in The Forest Lover.

  12. One of Carr's teachers in France, Harry Phelan Gibb, tells Emily that she needs to paint out of her soul. What might this mean, and does she ever achieve it? What does she have to do first? Is there a connection between intuitive painting coming from one's soul or instincts, and technical painting coming from the application of aesthetic principles? Are they entirely contrary or can they be reconciled? If so, how? How does this dichotomy of artistic approaches apply to other arts?

  13. Emily asks Fanny, "Don't you think creating yourself is a spiritual act?" How would she answer this for herself? How does her life answer it? Do you agree or disagree with her?

  14. What is the nature of the relationship between Emily and Fanny?

  15. Besides Post-Impressionist and Fauve techniques, what does Emily gain from her sixteen months in France--in terms of her art, and other than her art?

  16. What influence does Dzunukwa have over Emily? How is Dzunukwa a part of Native Canadian mentality, as well as the settler mentality of European Canadians?

  17. What might be the long-term effects of Emily participating in the potlatch?

  18. To what extent did Emily overcome the trauma of her father's "brutal telling?" What experiences helped her to free herself from her father's rigid hold on her? Was the outcome between Emily and Claude unfortunate, or just right?

  19. What propels Emily toward relationships with people who are socially marginalized?

  20. After returning from Hitats'uu, Emily is concerned about the influence of her visit on Lulu who is so curious and impressionable. Why doesn't she show a similar concern about her influence on Harold? She tells her sisters of the good effect Harold has had on her return to serious work. Is Emily's influence on Harold ultimately good or bad?

  21. What similarities are there between Harold and Sophie? In what ways are Harold and Sophie both tragic figures resulting from similar causes?

  22. How realistic is Emily in her expectations of what a sister should be? What brings about some degree of healing in the relationship between Emily and her sisters? What prevents it from being complete?

  23. In Chapter Twenty-nine, Emily reads a passage from Whitman's Leaves of Grass to Jessica which begins, "The masters know the earth's words and use them more than audible words." How does Emily absorb this and apply it?

  24. The first native philosophy that Emily encounters is the Nuu'chah'nulth belief of hishuk ts'awaak, everything is one, voiced by Lulu. To what extent does Emily come to see this to be true?

  25. If you happen to know the work of Georgia O'Keeffe, what similarities do you see in the themes of both of their work and the sensibilities of the two women? They did actually meet each other briefly in New York in 1930. What kind of a conversation might they have had?

  26. After visiting museums in New York in 1930, Emily told an audience in Victoria that abstraction was art in which "only the spiritual remains." Given her search for a spiritual way of seeing, why do you think she didn't turn wholly to abstraction in her paintings?

  27. How do Emily's struggles for her art parallel or differ from those of other creative individuals, famous or not?

  28. Given that Emily Carr is well known throughout Canada, what do you think has prevented her from becoming well known in the United States?

  29. How have you observed things differently after having lived Emily's experience vicariously?

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