NORTHERN LIGHT: The enduring mystery of Tom Thomson and the woman who loved him
Vintage Canada, 2010
It's a credit to our small Marmora Library that I've been able to read biographies of Canada's three foremost artists. A previous posting reviewed bios on Emily Carr and Norval Morrisseau, and this history of Tom Thomson completes the trilogy.
I found this to be the perfect deep winter read for many reasons. In effect it's really three different stories in several genres which are thoroughly intertwined. First it's MacGregor's thorough and life long investigation into the mysterious death of painter Tom Thomson. It's a detective novel, a real life whodunnit, about the murder of Thomson on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park a century ago. It's taken a century for improvements in forensics and changes in public attitude to make it possible for this story to be told and unravelled.
While telling the Tom Thomson story the reader also gets Roy MacGregor's own take on growing up in rural Ontario in the town of Huntsville. Those of us living in Marmora know only too well the joys and pains of small town life - the immediacy of the beauty of nature, but also the inquisitive and sometimes too knowing nature of our fellow villagers. So when we read Northern Light we're also getting partial biographies of both the author, respected writer and journalist Roy MacGregor, and we're also getting his history lesson on rural Ontario.
Then there's the equally fascinating story of Winnie Trainor, the woman in the title. Who was she, and what role did she play in Tom Thomson's life and the mystery surrounding his death, and even his burial and current gravesite location? BTW, Winnie was a distant relative of the author, so there's a personal element in MacGregor's interest.
Living in Marmora, it's most likely you've also made the two hour drive to visit Algonquin Park. Even before I moved here three decades ago I'd twice paddled Canoe Lake and camped in the next portage, Joe Lake. I camped there many decades ago, paddling the length of Thomson's beloved lake and noting the memorial cairn in his honour. So it was a surprise to learn that the rough portage I'd made with a complaining big city girlfriend had once been a bustling rail spur community of 500 souls. I also learned a bit more Canadian art history - the fact that it was Tom Thomson who led his artist friends to Canoe Lake and Algonquin Park. His group of friends flourished after his death, becoming Canada's most famous school of artists, The Group of Seven.
This is a book to leisurely savour. It's long, but the content is so diffuse that it's never remotely boring. Relaxing. Thomson liked to visit Canoe Lake just before spring thaw when the ice would finally go out of his lake. I feel like that this crazy, yoyo of a winter. I too want the ice to go out and spring to arrive. Meanwhile, slowly reading Northern Light helped get me through several weeks of this winter of my discontent.