- The Laughing One: Word Sketches from Klee Wyck
Born in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1871, Emily Carr is well known in Canada. A university of art and design and an elementary school in Vancouver are named in her honor, as are a public library in Victoria, a middle school in Ottawa, and public schools in Ontario. Her many paintings of the landscape and First Nations cultures of British Columbia and Alaska—influenced by the Post-Impressionists and Fauvists, whom she’d studied in Paris, New York, and elsewhere—are saturated with color. The keenness of her eye for nature and the way she renders shapes have been compared with the style of Georgia O’Keefe, whom she met. Carr was greatly encouraged by her association with the famous Group of Seven, Canadian landscape artists active in the 1920s and 1930s.
When her poor health made it impossible to travel and paint anymore, she began writing. Her first book, Klee Wyck, was published in 1941, when she was sixty-nine, by Oxford University Press. The book is a collection of stories—she modestly referred to them as “sketches”—which she wrote in notebooks over a number of years. To Carr’s surprise, Klee Wyck won the 1941 Governor General’s Award for literature. Robertson Davies praised the book. “Completely free of fripperies and self-conscious fine writing. . . . Every unnecessary word has been purged from her descriptions, every thought is as clear as a bell.” And he predicted that Carr would soon be “recognized as one of the foremost among the few important writers that Canada has produced.” She published three other books of stories before she died in 1945; a few more were published posthumously.
In 1951, Clarke, Irwin and Company purchased the rights to Klee Wyck from Oxford and was given permission by Ira Dilworth, Carr’s literary executor, to republish the book as part of a series for schools. But in editing Klee Wyck, Clark, Irwin expurgated over twenty-five hundred words—all considered unflattering of the missionaries or too explicit in depicting the cruelty shown First Nations people and their culture. In the first story, “Ucluelet,” Carr writes about a visit she made at age fifteen to a Mission School near the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations community of Ucluelet. The publisher cut [End Page 25] eight hundred words, including the last two pages. As Carr’s executor, Dilworth was furious but could do nothing about it.
For the next fifty-two years, Canadian and world readers knew Klee Wyck only in the expurgated version published by Clark, Irwin and Company, and were not informed that it had been edited. Kathryn Bridge, however, an archivist with the British Columbia Archives, holder of the Emily Carr papers, examined the original manuscripts and compared them to Clark, Irwin’s version. She was “taken aback” by what she found. The copyright ownership of Carr’s work had expired, so a new version of Klee Wyck could be released. In a handsome edition from Douglas & McIntyre, the book was reprinted in its entirety in 2003. After two generations, readers could become acquainted with the real Emily Carr: a strong and amazing woman who rendered vividly and honestly the wild places of British Columbia and the conditions of First Nations people, culture, and daily lives. In literature as well as painting, Carr did this at a time when too many people valued neither.
The lady Missionaries expected me. They sent an enormous Irishman in a tiny canoe to meet the steamer. We got to the Ucluelet wharf soon after dawn. Everything was big and cold and strange to me, a fifteen-year-old school girl. I was the only soul on the wharf. The Irishman did not have any trouble deciding which was I.
It was low tide, so there was a long, sickening ladder with slimy rungs to climb down to get to the canoe. The man’s big laugh and the tippiness of the canoe were even more frightening than the ladder. The paddle in his great arms rushed the canoe through the waves.
We came to Toxis, which was the Indian name for the Mission House...