Drab Little Nothings
- Susan Crean (Author)
The Laughing One: A Journey to Emily Carr. HarperCollins (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Michelle Ariss
In Growing Pains, Emily Carr calls the particulars of her life “drab little nothings.” The Laughing One shows the folly of Carr’s modesty. Susan Crean’s book on Carr is several things at once, none of them drab: a fictionalized biography, a history textbook, a travelogue, a feminist tract, an ecological treatise, a plea for Aboriginal rights, and a reporter’s notebook. Crean resembles a well-informed, enthusiastic travel guide who believes that arriving at the destination is no more important than all that one can learn along the way. The subtitle of the book is, after all, “A Journey to Emily Carr.”
While managing, for the most part, to keep Carr central to the narrative, Crean examines three rather disparate areas of interest: the lives of several people who had an impact on Carr’s development as an artist, Francis Hodgkins and Lawren Harris for instance; the European and Canadian societies in which Carr lived; and Aboriginal issues in early and contemporary British Columbia. Undoubtedly, all of the data Crean deals with is noteworthy. Nevertheless there are long passages of text that have little to do with Carr. Much of the microscopic study of Hodgkins’ life, for instance, seems like superfluous baggage on this multi-faceted “journey” to Carr.
In contrast, the research that shapes the first section of the fifth and final chapter is invaluable for its relevance and originality. Here, Crean creates a monologue for Carr in which she recalls the personality and life experiences of Sophie Frank and reminisces about the nature and development of their thirty-year friendship.
Crean’s decision “to introduce the present in a journalistic voice” takes getting used to, primarily because her “journalistic voice” in this book is highly uneven and at times downright lazy. For instance, how can the author of an image as memorable as, “Looking up and around the little cove, I feel mist tickling my cheeks and wonder how something so delicate can muffle the din of the sea” be the same writer who attributes to Georgia O’Keefe “nerves to match Madonna’s”? And, what to make of this cliched, grammatically incorrect passage: “I notice that while her response to environmental issues is often evoked, her stand on things like the Nisga’a treaty or Oka, where the political rubber meets the road in our time, are never imagined.” Fortunately, the writing style elsewhere in the book (aside from at least a dozen typographical errors) is consistently erudite and appropriate to the subject.
The chapter’s “middle sections” offer insightful analyses of the colonialism and voice appropriation that Carr’s (and now Crean’s) work are part of, and of the relations between the First Nations and the white communities of Carr’s day and of ours. Crean forcibly challenges long-held assumptions about the development of mainstream art in Canada, and of provincial and national policies with regard to First Nations people. And in the final section of the last chapter, she scrutinizes and explicates the legal and political battles, historical and current, over the protection of Aboriginal sites, heritage, and artefacts. The author’s abilities to describe, interpret, and synthesize are most evident and most useful in these sections of the book. Overall, her attempt in The Laughing One to do justice to Carr’s “drab little nothings” is illuminating and substantial.
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MLA: Ariss, Michelle. Drab Little Nothings. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #190 (Autumn 2006), South Asian Diaspora. (pg. 83 - 84)
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