________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 7 . . . . November 26, 2004


Tom Thomson: The Life and Mysterious Death of the Famous Canadian Painter. (Amazing Stories).

Jim Poling.
Canmore, AB: Altitude Publishing (Distributed by Saunders Book Company), 2003.
123 pp., pbk., $9.95.
ISBN 1-55153-950-0.

Subject Headings:
Thomson, Tom, 1877-1917.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by J. Lynn Fraser.

*** /4

The mystery of whether Tom Thomson was murdered or died due to a fishing accident still stirs controversy. Poling brings the events of over 80 years ago to life with vivid portrayals of the individuals involved and the times in which they lived. He does not try to give a definitive answer as to the reason for the painter’s death. Poling instead interests the reader in the tensions at Canoe Lake and how they echoed those of Canadians during the period around World War One. Tom Thomson remains a romantic and tragic figure even nearly 100 years after his death. Poling’s book gives a careful, but necessarily light, discussion of the people around Thomson before his death and the continuing controversy about his death. This approach enables the younger reader to understand how unclear and complicated the various threads that contribute to real life events can be, thus providing a good lesson for understanding contemporary events.

     Additionally, the text is able to communicate the struggle of the artist to find commercial success. There is a life lesson here for the younger reader about following one’s passions, pursuing a dream despite financial difficulty, and being true to oneself. One is also made aware of the sometimes unexpected consequences of one’s relationships with others. For this reason, and due to other mature themes in this text, this book is better suited to readers aged 14 and older.

     Poling gives the reader an easy straightforward read. The facts and emotions surrounding Thomson’s death are related without sensationalism, no doubt reflecting the author’s newspaper background and his research. A list of books the reader can use to further explore the events around Thomson as well as his paintings are provided at the end of the book.

     Poling is able to maintain the reader’s interest through his ability to convey complex ideas with simple and effective images:

Toronto had split its backwoods cocoon wide open and was emerging as a major metropolitan centre when Tom Thomson, unemployed commercial artist, arrived from Grey County. (p. 23)

     Poling’s writing also conveys a great deal of information economically:

One side of Tom Thomson was the bon vivant. He dressed stylishly and enjoyed good restaurants. He wore silk shirts. He loved women and liked booze and drank heavily at times. … He had money … He spent it with style and was generous and gregarious at times. …

Contrast that with the brooding and socially monastic Thomson who wore bush trousers and a heavy work shirt and who preferred to sit smoking his pipe in the woods, staring blankly at the sky or water. (p. 27)

     An unfortunate problem with this book is that there are no images of Thomson’s paintings. For younger readers who are likely not to have grown up seeing the images of the painter’s works, this is a serious omission. These paintings would have conveyed a sense of what Tom Thomson felt about the Canadian North as well as about his passion and personality. Part of understanding Tom Thomson is not just in his words and other’s perceptions of him. The reader would have been helped to understand more of Thomson’s desire to stay in the North to paint had they been able to see what he did paint. The iconic West Wind is mentioned (p. 42) but not shown. Lawren Harris is quoted as saying about the atmosphere at Canoe Lake:

We lived in a continuous blaze of enthusiasm. We were at times very serious and concerned, at other times hilarious and carefree. Above all, we loved this country and loved exploring it and painting it. (p. 48)

     The painter’s passion could be better appreciated through seeing his work. Despite the lack of illustrations, I recommend this book due to the author’s easy style and the images he is able to conjure with his well-chosen words.


J. Lynn Fraser is a freelance writer whose articles are appear in national and international magazines and newspapers, and who has written two non-fiction books for children.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364
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