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The Laughing One: A Journey to Emily Carr

by Susan Crean

Emily Carr is a Canadian icon, and like many another icon, her exact meaning is constantly being re-evaluated. Carr has enjoyed several incarnations: tortured artist, pioneering modernist, mystical nationalist, feminist trailblazer, dotty recluse, best-selling author, and racist exploiter of native culture. That last identity is the one her admirers have the most trouble with, and the guise that is most debated in the spheres of cultural politics and art history.

Susan Crean doesn’t shy away from the more problematic aspects of our understanding of Emily Carr, but neither does she try to recast Carr in the light of contemporary mores. Rather, Crean very effectively mixes history, personal essays, and fiction into a potent cross-genre cocktail that, if it is any one thing, is mostly a travel memoir. It is, as the book’s subtitle states, a journey to find Emily Carr – Klee Wyck, the laughing one – and to come to terms with her legacy.

Each of the book’s five chapters is divided into three subsections: a fictionalized account of events from an era in Carr’s life; a more straightforward biographical rendering of those events, often dealing with the lives of the artists, intellectuals, and friends who influenced Carr; and ending with a first-person narrative of Crean’s geographical retracing of Carr’s journeys.

Elegantly written, thoughtful, and challenging, The Laughing One sheds new light on Carr’s career. More importantly, though, Crean takes the reader on a journey through a nation’s relationship not only with Carr and her work, but with the First Nations and the land itself. Essentially, Crean interrogates our fascination with the many Carrs posited by artists and historians, leaving the work to speak for itself. After this, the ways we listen to that work may never be the same.