*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience. God help us all.
Susan Vreeland is one of those authors in the library world where you know of her popularity from the vast amount of books on the shelf, much like your everyday Lee Child, James Patterson, or Louise Penny. I could decipher the genre from a glance–historical fiction–and Caucasian women seem to be the main protagonist. The Forest Lover is what I typically refer to as a “book club book,” meaning that I would recommend for a general audience, probably women, and it has a lot of elements that would make up a good discussion: Native Americans, Native American women, a white, middle-class woman’s role in the early 20th century, artistic freedom, et al. It’s not particularly controversial, it’s well-written, and there’s no sex or direct violence–it’s a nice book.
Written as historical fiction, where one creates a story using sprinkles of fact, TFL is about an artist in the early 1900s in Canada who chooses to stay single and childless, eschews religion, loves animals, painting nature, and hangs out with Native Americans at at time when whites were in full-swing Christian colonization mode (yes, nothing much has changed; just wait, there’s more). At first, I wondered if reading a novel written in that time period instead of reading a modern-day interpretation would be more effective, such as books by women who lived what Vreeland writes about, such as Kate Chopin or Virgina Woolfe. However as I delved deeper into the impetus for the creation of the novel, I read that this book’s main character, Emily Carr, was indeed an actual artist and that the book is loosely based on her actual life.
Vreeland creates Emily Carr’s world by weaving social and personal (to Carr, and probably Vreeland as well) threads that reveal the complexities of social injustice concerning gender and race. Throughout the book, and Emily’s real life, she frequently receives the underhanded compliment, “You’ll be a fine woman painter” or that she’s a “woman artist”; woman being the operative word here. This reminds me of a Twitter entanglement in 2014 when musician Neko Case was called a “woman in music” by Playboy Magazine, striking back, “Am I? IM NOT A FUCKING ‘WOMAN IN MUSIC’, IM A FUCKING MUSICIAN IN MUSIC!” Though this book takes place in the early 1900s when Carr lived, was written in 2004, you’ll be delighted to know that zero has changed in over 100 years concerning the gendered nature of art–men are the norm and women are the outsiders.
Another curious discrepancy that stood out as I read TFL, especially after reading Vellum by Hal Duncan as my last Stranger by the Book: A Year of Unknown Reading selection was the difference in the description of sex scenes written by men and women. From my own empirical reading observations, there are some marked differences between a man’s description of sex from what I’ve read from Hal Duncan, Joe Hill, Stephen King, and John Updike to name just a few. From what I’ve read, they use basic physical language, “my penis feels and looks like this and this is what I did with it, and this what I saw,” and these authors, like many other male authors, just love to use the word “cunt” in their sex scenes. To me, it seems like showing off; feeling like rebels, using a word that seems “naughty.” In others that I’ve read, including feminist and lesbian erotica, the sex scene is very different in this story, describing Carr’s emotional well-being and psychological process mixed with issues from her past. She ties in unsettling memories from childhood and here, I feel like Vreeland has a unique handle on how the complexities of the past can impede on a woman’s growth as a healthy–sexual or otherwise–adult.
To contextualize my reading experience a bit more, it’s written from the point of view of someone who reads horror, sci-fi, independent fiction, books where it’s necessary to extend your belief, science and biographies, and therefore mainstream NY Times best sellers are typically off my radar. This being said, I appreciated this type of general reader, thoroughly fleshed out and full of good “issues” to talk and think about book. Unless recommended, I probably wouldn’t have read this, labeling it too much of a Lifetime Television flick in book form. Thankfully, Vreeland gives the reader enough historical fact to keep us slightly appalled and friendships to emotional invest us.