Tom Thomson books

Books on these many beguiling aspects of Tom Thomson are numerous. Some focus primarily on his art, others mostly on the artist, a number blending both. Certainly many of the Thomson books have resulted from their author's intrigue about the enduring mystery of the painter's untimely death, a tragedy that added even more allure to his remarkable paintings. Two of recent Thomson books reflect this abiding fascination.

In tandem, Ross King's deeply researched Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven, published in September 2010, refreshingly places the familiar story of Thomson and his artist colleagues in the international context of those turbulent conditions during and after World War I, when this group of young Canadian painters went from obscurity to international renown.

In addition to MacGregor and King, others mesmerized by Thomson over the past century include art historians, fiction writers, legal experts, compilers of other peoples' recollections, naturalists, and conspiracy theorists. Understandably a number of Muskoka writers, from Joe Cookson in Roots in Muskoka, to Susan Pryke with Huntsville: With Spirit and Resolve, and even my own book A Passion for Justice, have touched on Thomson's close connections with Huntsville and north Muskoka. But it's a field wide open to all.

The first account was J.M. MacCallum's "Tom Thomson: Painter of the North," a 1918 Canadian Magazine article written right after the artist's death, which by 1937 MacCallum parlayed into a book with the same title. He advanced the "spin" about the artist's death – "accidental drowning" – to emphasize Thomson's importance as artistic pioneer and bury distracting worries about foul play. MacCallum, a Toronto doctor and patron to the Group of Seven artists, wanted the focus to remain squarely on Thomson's paintings (and thus, their mounting value). So did members of the Group of Seven, and members of Thomson's own family, for similar reasons. The official story was that Tom drowned. They all stuck to it. The tragic early death of a rising young artist enhanced Tom Thomson's mystique.

Northern Light, Roy MacGregorBy 1930 Blodwen Davies, the first true biographer of Thomson, published Paddle and Pallette: The Story of Tom Thomson, followed in 1935 by her second book on the same subject, A Study of Tom Thomson: The Story of a Man who Looked for Beauty and Truth in the Wilderness. Seeking the deeper story, Davies published disquieting facts that challenged the official line about Canada's legendary artist. From then on, many writers about Thomson would address not only his art, but also his personal life and the intrigues surrounding his death as well.

Not everyone joined in, especially not those connected with the Ontario Government. The provincial authorities had been complicit in a running cover-up, and never instituted an investigation of the mysterious death. Thus Audrey Saunder's 1947 book The Algonquin Story, a history of the park published by the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests, retold the "official" view of the case in a matter-of-fact way.

But others, including two lawyers, set about to "prove" a case about Thomson's death.

More than forty years ago, William Little's decades-long research culminated in his landmark 1970 book entitled The Tom Thomson Mystery. Himself a judge, Little used his legal training to meticulously run "facts" to ground, amass documents, obtain statements by witnesses, dissect speculations, and collect and examine the various accounts of the artist's life, work, and death. He sensationally even exhumed the body buried at what many had claimed was Thomson's real grave at Canoe Lake, thus undermining the official claim that the artist's body had previously been reinterred in a family plot at Leith, near Owen Sound. What is more, in examining the skull, Judge Little discovered a hole in its temple that pointed to foul play. By emphasizing the strange events in Algonquin Park both prior to and after Tom Thomson's supposed "accidental drowning," Little amassed considerable evidence that suggested a murder, a suspect, and a motive.

Since then, Michigan lawyer Neil Lehto ended his own 20 years of research by writing the 2005 novel Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson's Last Spring. This book subscribes more than any other to the suicide theory for Thomson's strange death. Mixing fact and fiction, Lehto adorns his version by filling gaps with invented scenarios and crafting fulsome adventures out of bare-bones stories. Despite being a compelling story, his book is unhelpful clutter on this puzzling landscape.

Over the years, few titles better conveyed the increasingly layered meanings of this story than Tom Thomson: The Silence and the Storm, published in 1977 on the hundredth anniversary of Thomson's birth. "Silence and storm" describe with equal accuracy the artist himself, the subjects he painted, the impact his art had, and the ongoing cycle of hushed cover-up conspiracies and thundering revelations concerning his death.

This book, by artist Harold Town and cultural writer David P. Silcox, was primarily a celebration of the paintings of Tom Thomson. "Although Thomson is one of Canada's creative heroes," they wrote more than 35 years ago, "he is known by too few paintings and too many dark speculations. There is a great deal written about how he died; our purpose is to show what he lived for." The book's large coffee-table format afforded ample space to display the range and power of Thomson's achievements as a painter: 130 of the 177 colour plates are of pictures that were published in colour for the first time, almost half of them reproduced in their actual size.

These and dozens of other Thomson books, articles, and reports written over the last 80 years, taken together, provide Sherrill Grace with the source material for her astute 2004 masterwork Inventing Tom Thomson. By standing above and dissecting the conflicting versions of Thomson's life and death, and by thoughtful discernment of his artistic impact upon us all (including especially on the writers of these Thomson books), Grace explores with intelligent discernment – at the levels of psychology, art, and Canadian sensibilities – all the biographical fictions and fictional autobiographies that have been spun out of this fascinating puzzle.

Tom Thomson became larger than life. He haunts us still.

— Review essay by J. Patrick Boyer

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