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July  21, 2006

New Tom Thomson book offers a good summer read

Eighty-nine years ago this month Canadaís best-known landscape artist Tom Thomson died mysteriously on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park.  His 62 small 1917 paintings on birch shingles purchased at the Standard Planning Mill in South River are extremely valuable and rarely available for purchase.  His other small and larger paintings are even more unavailable except in public viewing in galleries.  I wrote about the major Thomson touring exhibition at the National Gallery in Ottawa in 2002 celebrating his 125th birthday.  The catalogue from the exhibition is one of the best of many books and other references on Thomson. 

 Tom Thomson painting The Canoe 1912 (Tomís canoe).

Like Grey Owl where some people dwell on his behaviour rather than his great conservationist and writing achievements, Thomsonís work is often overshadowed by persistent efforts to figure out how he died in his prime on July 8, 1917 at 39 years of age.  As the father of Canadian landscape painting the interest in his life is understandable if at times irritating when it takes away from his artistic achievement. 

Another fascinating book on Thomsonís demise has recently be published by American retired lawyer and budding author Neil Lehto.  His book Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomsonís Last Spring (2005) is available for purchase on line, at the Friends of Algonquin Park in the Information Centre in Algonquin Park and through bookstores everywhere. 

I read the book with interest recently and thoroughly enjoyed it in spite of a few minor flaws.  The main thrust of the book is a cold case analysis of the evidence from various sources and the harsh analysis of those sources.  Like a courtroom lawyer trying to win his case and unlike other Thomson authors he attacks the credibility and motivation of some people expressing their point of view on Thomsonís death.  These points of view include the idea that he fell overboard while urinating, or when drunk, or from a heart attack.  Some suggest he was murdered or committed suicide.  One source I read recently but not found in the book claims it might have been a rare waterspout weather disturbance. 

Lehto examines various ideas and like a good lawyer should makes his case for what he believes to be true.  You are the jury Ė do you agree with his arguments? 

The book has an added feature I enjoyed where Lehto introduces several chapters of fiction interspersed with the scholarly analysis.  It is like reading two books at once and as enjoyable as it is it can be confusing where his fictional intervention is juxtaposed with the scholarly lawyer approach.  The fictional chapters are about a lawyer who is researching the life of Tom Thompson and hss four daughters and wants to be a writer in real life like Lehto. 


New Tom Thomson Book

I had a bit of a problem with a couple of chapters where he carries his fictional approach to the imaginary reenactment of Thomson events with extensive dialogue among the players from the real story.  You as a member of the jury could be confused when making a decision on the case if you donít separate fact from fiction. 

Lehto and his book have received a lot of attention and he will be at several Ontario events this summer speaking and signing books.  Check his website below for details.  He will be at the McMichael Gallery August 6, at Thomsonís home town of Leith August 7th and the Owen Sound Public Library at 6.  Locally he will be at the South River Arts Festival August 12 and will visit another South River event that evening as a part of the Tom Thomson Experience: a Canadian Art Adventure Ė a separate 3 day event supported by the Art Gallery of Ontario ($597 Inclusive).  Well-known artist Jill Boshulte provides creative guidance to artists in the group. 

For more info on Lehtoís book log on to www.algonquinelegy.com.  For information on the Thomson Art Adventure log on to www.algonquincanada.com/tomthomson.  For my previous articles on Thomson check my website for August 2 and August 9, 2002. 

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