The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson

George A. Walker, The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson (Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine's Quill, 2012).

Mystery, haunting images, strong emotions, one Canadian artist’s tribute to another—there’s much of interest in this book. One thing you won’t find, however, is a lot of text. The artist who created the book, George Walker, calls it a “wordless narrative”, and he uses only pictures to tell the story of Tom Thomson’s untimely death in 1917.

It’s a story that’s been told many times before, and in several versions, both in print and onscreen—although never quite like this. The book is not really a “whodunnit”, because there is no text, and therefore no names. But clearly, according to this version, Tom did not just trip over a fishing line. The lack of specifics is actually a plus: foul play was surely a factor in Thomson’s death, but naming names is tricky, and Walker’s wordless narrative neatly sidesteps the need to do so.

Instead of text, there are 109 wood engravings, printed from blocks made of Canadian maple. The results are grainy, organic, even rough—perhaps reflecting Tom Thomson’s lifestyle out in the bush. There is also a good deal of variety. Some of the images are based on Thomson’s paintings, such as the National Gallery of Canada’s famous Jack Pine and the Art Gallery of Ontario’s The West Wind. Others are adapted from period photographs of Thomson and the personalities and buildings of Algonquin Park at the time.

I also loved the pictures of turn-of-the-century Toronto in the first part of the book. And check out the beautiful impression of the Northern Lights on page 81—not easy to do in the hard-edged black-and-white medium of wood engraving! There are powerful scenes of anger and conflict, resembling the prints done by German Expressionists in the early twentieth century: an influence that George Walker acknowledges in his fascinating afterword. As Walker points out, Tom Thomson “rarely wrote a word, but painted and sketched hundreds of images,” so it’s fitting for him to “have his story retold in the language he understood best: the language of pictures.”

The book has appeared in two editions. There is a reasonably priced popular edition published by The Porcupine’s Quill, a small press in southern Ontario. And then there is the hand-printed limited edition of just 39 copies (yes, 39 was Tom Thomson’s age when he died). For this, Walker received an honourable mention in the Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design in Canada. Winners of the Alcuin Society Awards will be on view in the Gallery’s Library exhibition foyer from 2–4 and 9–11 January 2013. Come and take a look!

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