Review | The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson, George A. Walker

Most Canadians know Tom Thomson as a famous Canadian artist affiliated with the Group of Seven. His disappearance during a canoe trip and the discovery of his body days later have remained a tragic, yet intriguing mystery. Official cause of death was accidental drowning, but clues suggest possible foul play. If you’re interested in knowing more about this story, here’s the Wikipedia entry, and I’d also highly recommend Roy MacGregor’s fascinating Northern Light.

George A. Walker’s The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson is a beautiful addition to the list of books on Tom Thomson. Curator Tom Smart calls it a “visual elegy,” and I think that describes the book perfectly. Mysterious Death contains a hundred and nine woodblock engravings that cover Thomson’s life from his youth in the city to his death in Algonquin Park. I’m a fan of Porcupine’s Quill books in general — I love their textured pages, and think this is such a fitting format for the starkness of Walker’s medium. Mysterious Death is a wordless narrative, so all we have is a single black and white woodcut print at the centre of each page.

Certainly, it is possible to tell a story using only images, but I wouldn’t recommend reading Mysterious Death as a biographical resource on Tom Thomson. Rather, it is best to know a bit about Thomson’s life in order to understand the story. Because the images are so stylized, with faces either in shadow, or portrayed with few lines, and because there is no text, it can be difficult to recognize Thomson or other characters. Rather than give details about Thomson’s life, Walker gives impressions. This is especially true in the second half, about Thomson’s life at Algonquin. While the first half shows a more structured narrative, of Thomson as a professional artist, selling and exhibiting his work, the second half feels more like scenes plucked at random. Walker intersperses images of Thomson painting or fishing with images of the landscape, and creates an overall idyllic picture. Some of Walker’s images also give pleasant jolts of recognition, calling to mind, for example, Thomson’s famous The Jack Pine or West Wind.

The section on the fateful canoe trip is especially interesting because of the anger Walker conveys in his images. We may not understand the circumstances behind Thomson’s altercation with another man, but we can feel the menace, and the frustration. Walker’s account answers no questions about Thomson’s life; rather, it offers readers a sense of how that life must have felt — from the sense of purpose of getting his work exhibited, to the more relaxed, idyllic days painting in Algonquin Park, and finally, to the altercation that preceded his death.

Images from the book, from the Porcupine’s Quill website

A fact from the Author’s Note that I found especially interesting: The block used for the last image in the book is from branches believed to have fallen from the trees Thomson painted in Byng Inlet. That’s a fitting, rather haunting connection, eh?

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