Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him

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9780307357397: Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him

FINALIST 2011 – Ottawa Book Award for Non-Fiction

Roy MacGregor's lifelong fascination with Tom Thomson first led him to write Canoe Lake, a novel inspired by a distant relative's affair with one of Canada's greatest painters. Now, MacGregor breaks new ground, re-examining the mysteries of Thomson's life, loves and violent death in the definitive non-fiction account. Why does a man who died almost a century ago and painted relatively little still have such a grip on our imagination?

The eccentric spinster Winnie Trainor was a fixture of Roy MacGregor's childhood in Huntsville, Ontario. She was considered too odd to be a truly romantic figure in the eyes of the town, but the locals knew that Canada's most famous painter had once been in love with her, and that she had never gotten over his untimely death. She kept some paintings he gave her in a six-quart basket she'd leave with the neighbours on her rare trips out of town, and in the summers she'd make the trip from her family cottage, where Thomson used to stay, on foot to the graveyard up the hill, where fans of the artist occasionally left bouquets. There she would clear away the flowers. After all, as far as anyone knew, he wasn't there: she had arranged at his family's request for him to be exhumed and moved to a cemetery near Owen Sound.

As Roy MacGregor's richly detailed Northern Light reveals, not much is as it seems when it comes to Tom Thomson, the most iconic of Canadian painters. Philandering deadbeat or visionary artist and gentleman, victim of accidental drowning or deliberate murder, the man's myth has grown to obscure the real view — and the answers to the mysteries are finally revealed in these pages.

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About the Author:

Roy MacGregor is the acclaimed and bestselling author of Home Team: Fathers, Sons and Hockey (shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award); A Life in the Bush (winner of the U.S. Rutstrum Award for Best Wilderness Book and the CAA Award for Biography); and Canadians: A Portrait of a Country and Its People, as well as two novels, Canoe Lake and The Last Season, and the popular Screech Owls mystery series for young readers. A regular columnist at The Globe and Mail since 2002, MacGregor's journalism has garnered four National Magazine Awards and eight National Newspaper Award nominations. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, and was described in the citation as one of Canada's "most gifted storytellers." He grew up in Huntsville, Ontario, and has kept returning to the Tom Thomson mystery all his writing life. He lives in Kanata.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


Instead of a family tree, the Thomson family could be better represented by The Tangled Garden, a 1916 painting by Thomson’s friend and contemporary J.E.H. MacDonald. Tom’s paternal grandfather, Thomas “Tam” Thomson, was the offspring of a woman named Christian Davidson, who had been jilted and left pregnant by her lover. Tam had children with three different women, two of whom he might have been married to at the same time. The painter’s paternal great-grandmother had two children out of wedlock until the church forced her lover to marry her—shortly after which he fled Scotland for North America and vanished, never to be seen again by the family. Roots of discontent.
Tam Thomson, described as “a charming talker and devilishly handsome,” emigrated to Canada to seek employment, promising to support the two children—one named Thomas Thomson, Jr.—he was leaving behind with their mothers, Elizabeth Delgarno of Old Deer, whom he might have married but never divorced, and Sarah Allan of nearby Peterhead, who bore him Thomas. According to Angie Littlefield’s self-published The Thomsons of Durham, Tam came to this country and settled first around Whitby, where he courted and married Elizabeth Brodie, who’d also come to Canada from Scotland. It was in Whitby in 1840 that John Thomson, father of the painter, was born.
Tam Thomson later purchased a farm at nearby Claremont, northwest of Whitby, and the growing family—eventually joined by Tam’s Scottish offspring—settled into a stone house there and prospered. Tam was a grand storyteller—“He was always the hero of his own story,” a cousin said—but his willingness to work hard and the sheer force of his personality soon brought him financial success as well. Very quickly, the Thomsons became a family of substance in the newly settled area. Though he’d lived in abject poverty back in Scotland, Tam Thomson now ran a grand home with servants.
A nearby Scottish family, the Mathesons, had come from the Isle of Skye in 1841 following the failure of the potato crop, first settling on Prince Edward Island. The Mathesons were also considered a family of substance—one relative was John A. Macdonald—and in 1865 John Thomson and Margaret Matheson married. John took over the management of his father’s growing farm operations, and one year after Confederation (a union brought about by their distinguished relative, privately referred to as “the old reprobate” by family members), they had their first child, George.
Elizabeth was born the following year, then Henry, Louise and Minnie—before a third boy arrived on August 5, 1877, and was given his grandfather’s proper name, Thomas John Thomson. When Tom was only two months old, the family moved north and west to a hundredacre farm called Rose Hill outside the village of Leith, near the southern edge of Lake Huron’s massive Georgian Bay. Here, the couple produced four more children: Ralph, James, Margaret and Fraser.
Life at Rose Hill was, by the few accounts available, rather bucolic. The family was well off thanks to a considerable inheritance from Tam, who died March 23, 1875 (Elizabeth had predeceased him by seven months). John Thomson was able to easily afford the $6,600 price tag on the Rose Hill property where he lived the life of a “gentleman farmer.” He became far better known for his fishing than his crop or livestock pursuits. As a great-niece once said of John Thomson, “He might not have been a good farmer, but he liked to watch a sunset.”
When Tom Thomson was five years old, his infant brother, James, died, cause not recorded. The nine remaining children, however, were healthy and thrived, though Tom is said to have suffered from “inflammatory rheumatism” at one point. In a 1931 letter, Thomson’s sister Louise wrote that Tom’s delicate condition led to the local doctor advising their parents to keep him out of school for a year. This, of course, delighted the boy, as it allowed him to spend most of that year outdoors. Louise said he was an amazing walker, once hiking fifteen kilometres through a blizzard to attend a party and another time travelling the thirty kilometres to Meaford on foot “rather than bother with a horse and buggy, though Father begged him to take them.” She said he would walk with a shotgun while wearing a felt hat he would soak with water and shape to a point over a broom handle. He would decorate the hat with wildflowers and squirrel tails. It was a typical rural Ontario life for a boy, not all that different from how I spent my time more than half a century later—minus the silly hat, of course.
Young Tom spent considerable time fishing on nearby Georgian Bay and on the sound heading into the Owen Sound harbour. He became a fine fisherman and quite an accomplished swimmer, which would suggest either that his health had been fine all along or that the outdoors had had its intended effect.
Life on Rose Hill was privileged. The Thomson children had their duties, but there was always time for fishing in summer and for skating on the frozen sound in winter. The farm was a social gathering point for neighbours, often filled with music. Tom sang in the church choir, played the violin in the school orchestra and, at local dances, dabbled on the mandolin and cornet. And he read, wrote poetry and liked to draw. Though we know he missed that one year of school, no one has been able to find any mention of what grade he completed.
Young Tom had a genuine love of nature that was significantly influenced by an older cousin of his grandmother, William Brodie, whom the Thomsons would sometimes visit in Toronto. Brodie, a dentist, was also a renowned naturalist—his collected specimens are in the Smithsonian in Washington and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto—who had lost his only son, Willie, in a canoeing accident. William Brodie, Jr., only nineteen, had set out to collect specimens along Manitoba’s Assiniboine River with some other young scientists, including the writer and naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, but Willie’s canoe had overturned in the spring current, and his friends had been unable to get a lifeline to him in time.
Tom, with his very evident love of nature, became something of a surrogate son to the elder Brodie, often going on day-long hikes through Toronto’s ravines, with Uncle Willie pointing out the various flora and fauna they found there.
Tom grew into a lithe and handsome young man. One photograph, taken when he was in his late teens, shows a rakish figure staring hard into the camera, an unlighted cigarette carefully set in a corner of his mouth, a rather faint moustache reaching for maturity and both hands shoved deep into his pants pockets in an insouciant pose that belies his rather formal white-tie dress. He was, his niece Jessie Fisk (née Harkness) would later claim, a lady-killer, with thick, black hair that he initially parted in the middle, causing a hank of locks to bracket each side of his forehead and draw attention to his patrician nose. His chin had a small dimple, and, like others in his family, he had a straight right eyebrow and a slightly curved left, giving people the impression he was vitally interested in whatever they were saying. Tall, with dark eyes and fine features, he soon abandoned the weak moustache but took to smoking a pipe, which made him seem more mature. One of his favourite words, apparently, was “shoddy,” which occasionally gave the impression that he was arrogant. At other times he seemed shy, which young women found attractive. Others took his reserve for brooding.
He certainly came early in life to the pleasures of drink. His childhood friend Alan H. Ross wrote a remembrance in which he said: “I have been with him on several occasions when I am now sorry to say that neither of us was very sober, but it is in such times men exchange real confidences and it was on one such occasion that I discovered how deeply sensitive he was and how he resented anything like public ridicule . . . I remember one night in 1901, in Meaford, when he embosomed himself, lamenting his lack of success in life in terms that rather astonished me. I began to think then that he realized his powers and that he also had secret ambitions. But one never knows . . .”
At twenty-one, all the Thomson children inherited $2,000 each from the estate of Tam Thomson—about $40,000 in today’s money. Tom frittered this substantial inheritance away—he had a passion for expensive silk shirts among other things—in very little time, a harbinger of the fact that he would spend the rest of his short life in constantly recurring financial crises. His sister Louise claimed that the directionless young man tried three times to enlist to serve in the South African War, only to be rejected each time on the grounds of his having a badly broken toe from a football game played long before. This information comes from a letter she wrote in 1931 and may or may not be factual. I do not believe it. She might have been trying to come to terms with a deceased family member who had gone from being relatively unknown at the time of his death to being of increasing interest in the emerging world of Canadian art. Such a white lie, if indeed it was—no records were kept concerning those rejected—could have been concocted to smooth over whatever awkwardness the family felt regarding inquiries about Tom’s later failure to enlist in the Great War, as A.Y. Jackson and other art contemporaries had done.
A longtime ranger in Algonquin Park, Bud Callighen, said that Tom had told him in the summer of 1915 that he’d tried three times to enlist but had been turned down. Callighen naturally assumed he meant the war raging in Europe. Callighen also said that Tom blamed fallen arches for his rejection, though others who heard this explanation were quick to point out that Thomson was able to hike for miles through the woods, often carrying a canoe, without apparent suffering or complaint.
Thomson used part of his inheritance to purchase an apprenticeship so he could train as a machinist at family friend William Kennedy’s foundry in Owen Sound, which manufactured ship propellers for the thriving Great Lakes shipbuilding industry. It seemed a responsible thing for the twenty-two-year-old to do, but it didn’t last. The job quickly bored him, and the shop manager, a Mr. Munro, soured on his young charge, thinking him lazy and lacking commitment. Less than a year later, Tom had either quit or been fired.
He then enrolled in the Canadian Business College at Chatham, which his older brothers, George and Henry, had attended. But it, too, bored him. “I don’t think Tom’s stay in Chatham did him much good,” Alan Ross claimed. “He seemed to me at the time to be drifting. He was clever enough at his studies but he lacked the faculty of concentration.”
In 1901 Tom quit business college and struck out for Winnipeg, where he stayed a short while—no one seems to know in what capacity—and then moved on to Seattle, Washington, where his ambitious and enterprising older brother George and their cousin F.R. McLaren had started up the Acme Business College, clearly modelled on the Chatham school. Tom, now twenty-four and still directionless, took a room with a Mr. and Mrs. Shaw on Twenty-first Street and found work as an elevator lift boy at the Diller Hotel.
George’s easy success in Seattle became a bit of a clarion call to the Thomsons of Rose Hill farm. Two other Thomson brothers, Ralph and Henry, soon joined George and Tom, but no brother was as closely tied to Tom as the eldest of the Thomson boys. George, in fact, appears to have been somewhat of an alter ego to Tom: driven, where Tom was distracted; successful, where Tom wandered; frugal and soon relatively wealthy, where Tom was spendthrift and often barely aware of the existence of money.
But George, too, harboured artistic dreams. He eventually sold his stake in the Seattle school and moved to New York to study painting, later settling into a bookkeeping job in New Haven, Connecticut, and restricting his art to a weekend hobby. In the mid-1920s, George would return to Owen Sound to teach art and to paint the familiar landscapes. He had an admirable art career, but would never attain Tom’s level of success. Knowing the dynamics of brotherhood, it’s likely that Tom grated on George, and perhaps George grated equally on Tom. Yet it was George, ever the responsible one, who would hurry to Canoe Lake in July 1917, when word went out that Tom was missing.
Tom spent three years on the West Coast. Alan Ross, who visited him there, said he was popular and happy. “I never knew anyone who made friends more easily,” Ross said. It seems the shyness of his youth had lifted. “He was one of the most companionable men it has been my fortune to hold friendship with,” Ross wrote, “and there are scores of others, I venture to say, who will tell you the same thing.”
Tom studied penmanship at his brother’s college and finally seemed to accept that he could have a career in engraving. He liked commercial art and soon tried his hand at his own creations with pen-and-pencil drawings and watercolours. He was hired on by C.C. Maring, who had previously been an instructor at the Chatham business school, but Tom soon switched to the Seattle Engraving Company, which offered a better salary. It seemed he had found his calling.
He also fell in love in Seattle.
It would be more unusual if he had not fallen for someone in those years in which he was passing through his mid-twenties. Brother George later claimed that Tom became smitten with a Seattle woman who never appeared quite as smitten in return, but it is unlikely that Tom would have confided much in his stern and serious older brother. All the same, according to George, a shy Tom had edged up to a marriage proposal only to have the object of his affections laugh at the suggestion, causing the young man to flee in humiliation in 1905, never to return to the West Coast.
The facts were later fleshed out to some extent by Canadian art historian Joan Murray, who identified the woman as Alice Elinor Lambert. Murray thought that Lambert was about fifteen years old at the time and considered the relationship harmless, mere puppy love. But Lambert would have been nineteen when Tom supposedly fled Seattle, so the affair might have been much deeper than Murray has conjectured.
Alice was seven years younger than Tom, a common enough gap in those days between a man and woman who were romantically involved. She’d been sent by her missionary parents to board with the Shaws, where Tom was already rooming. Alice went on to become a published author, and there may be much to be read into her 1934 novel, Women Are Like That. The main character is Miss Juliet Delaney, and at one point Juliet is reminded of the one true love of her life.
“For one disturbing year,” Lambert writes of her heroine, “she had been desperately in love with a tall, dark boy named Tom, a commercial artist, who in the summer used to take her on streetcar rides to Alki Point and in the wintertime to the dusty dimness of the publ...

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Roy MacGregor
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Roy MacGregor
Published by Random House Canada (2010)
ISBN 10: 0307357392 ISBN 13: 9780307357397
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