Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: Mark Reynolds on a new study of how Tom Thomson died

Mark Reynolds, a Canadian now living in Chicago who has written for Canada's History and other publications, contributes this original review of The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction by Gregory Klages (Dundurn 2016)

The epitaph for Tom Thomson recorded in the Owen Sound parish where he was buried eulogized the painter as: “Talented and with many friends and no enemies, a mystery.”

In the days immediately after Thomson’s body was pulled out of Algonquin Park’s Canoe Lake the talent and friends were then not in doubt: his paintings had already begun to inspire the artists of the nascent Group of Seven. Major institutions, discerning collectors and dedicated patrons had already purchased some of his early works, and museums were already looking for more. His death in 1917 cut short a career that most observers agreed had the potential to transform the Canadian art world.

The enemies and mystery alluded to in the parish record is more easily explained by the churchman’s foresight than the facts as they were then understood. The official cause of death was drowning, caused in an accident. Nonetheless, in the decades since 1917, the tales around Thomson’s life and death in Canoe Lake have been transplanted from the historic record into the more fertile soil of Thomson’s legend, and have grown to accommodate and keep pace with the painter’s place in the national mythos. “Mystery” grew alongside it, its weeds generously fertilized by those determined to harvest its bounty.

Thomson’s legend - of the lone outdoorsman, at home in the wilds to which his art tried to honour - did not sit easily with an accidental drowning on a calm summer afternoon less than a kilometre from his bed. Misadventure - an awkward step on a rock, a careless encounter with a submerged log - could not bring down the man who had seen into the soul of the Canadian wild through “The Jack Pine” and captured “The West Wind.”

“The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson” began as “Death on a Painted Lake”, part of the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History archival website project. Klages is not pursuing a mystery however, or even really attempting to cast new light on Thomson’s death.

If there is a narrative present in the book, it is less about Tom Thomson and more about the historical record pertaining to Thomson. How his death attracted suspicion, which turned into speculation, which turned into rumour, which eventually turned into memory, which has assumed the stature of fact.

Klages' mission was to rip up this overgrowth of supposition away from the record, and then trace the vines and roots of each to disentangle them from the truth. As such, reading the book is less like reading a conventional history that it is akin to sitting in the jury while a very thorough prosecutor methodically, rigorously and uncompromisingly builds a case. No witness, no piece of evidence is left without having its credibility or provenance examined to the minutest degree.

The approach leads to a lot of repetition. Chapter after chapter the testimony of then-ranger Mark Robinson is called upon: first his journals, then his letters, then his lecture. The details of each are compared and contrasted. Each time any part of them is relied upon by later writers, either on their own or in combination with other witnesses, the process is repeated to a greater or lesser degree.

The repetition initially promised a tedious read. Like a prosecutor, though, Klages was establishing his facts, and making sure they were understood. The goal was not to tell a story, but to make his indictment. The aforementioned Robinson, whose apparent desire to attach himself to an interesting story led him to add flourishes to his tale unsupported by the facts, was an accessory. But the real targets of Klages’ prosecutorial zeal are other authors. Those subjected to Klages’ cross-examination include Blowden Davies, who first proposed Thomson’s murder in the 1930s; and William Little, whose determination to prove that Thomson was murdered led him to desecrate a grave in the 1960s and use that crime to sell a book.

Klages’ evisceration of one prominent Canadian journalist for his irresponsible output on Thomson was almost painful to read: the ruthlessness with which Klages reveals the speculation, sloppy research and unsupported family legend through which the author has polluted the public understanding of Thomson’s story was a tour de force of rigorous history over sensationalizing careerism.

In many ways, the thorough debunking of the peddlers of murder (and suicide) theories was the apex of the book, making the actual chapter on Thomson’s probable death a bit of an afterthought. A reader like me, having no previous investment in Thomson’s story other than the shared experience of having fallen out of a canoe in Algonquin Park, might nonetheless find Klages’ paring Thomson’s story down to its mundane truth intellectually gratifying. Better, the relentlessness with which Klages pursues only verifiable truths turned out to be emotionally compelling, in an unexpected way. The mundane likelihood that Thomson slipped disembarking from his canoe does not provide a dignified death for a man whose fame was tied to his expertise in the wild, but as Klages notes, “(w)hat Thomson is remembered for is the passion that gave his life meaning.” With this book, we should, 100 years later, finally be able to move on from his death.

With the fall book season looming, we hope to notice new and interesting histories in the coming months.  If you would consider reviewing for us, let me know -- and suggest potential titles or topic areas you might take up. We can provide reviewers with a book, this space, and our gratitude, not much more.

Follow @CmedMoore