Allegra Young likes to dip her paddle in many parts of Canadian culture. She is the Recording and Licensing Manager for Centrediscs – the contemporary, Canadian classical music label of the Canadian Music Centre based in Toronto, and was once the Podcast Producer at The Banff Centre where she interviewed Canadian artists like Barbara Budd, John Vaillant and Matt Andersen. At her blog, Allegra is currently reading her way through the 40 books selected as the celebratory 10th Anniversary picks of Canada Reads.
Allegra has been known to generate some pretty good literary ideas herself: she is proudly 50% of the brains behind Bare it for Books (a naked fundraiser with proceeds going to Pen Canada). In her spare time she cooks, crochets and knits. A consummate multi-tasker, Allegra especially loves to combine two of her interests at once, as she does as part of her CanLit Knit book club (where, you guessed it, they discuss that month’s book over drinks and clicking needles). Today, Allegra shares the story of blending three particular passions–art, story and the landscape of Northern Ontario–on a literary pilgrimage inspired by painter Tom Thomson and by Roy MacGregor’s novel Canoe Lake.
Any voracious reader knows that hollow feeling in the pit of the stomach that comes after finishing a really good book. The voice of the protagonist echoes; the temporary narrator of your thoughts. What better cure for the broken, literary heart, than to follow these characters, your friends, to the places they lived?
In the past few years I have read books largely by Canadian authors. My passion for our home and native land has been let loose – I simply adore learning about the history of this country, whether through non-fiction, historical fiction, or simply fiction, set in earlier days.
One of my favourite Canadian books is Canoe Lake by Roy MacGregor. Canoe Lake tells the tale of the untimely death of Tom Thomson. The characters are a mix of fictional and historical and though many liberties are taken in the story, it’s a romantic, mysterious ride.
I have been fascinated by Tom Thomson since I was a child. On class field trips to the Art Gallery of Ontario, I would be drawn toward the Group of Seven gallery. In my mind there are few artists that can capture the vast beauty of Ontario quite like these painters.
It was Thomson’s “The Pool” that first introduced me to the beauty of Algonquin Park in the fall. The calm, mirror-like water broken by a canoe paddle; the fiery oranges, reds and yellows that spread through the leaves of the trees; the fresh, cool air – this is, to me, the definition of nature.
Author Roy MacGregor was fascinated too. He grew up in Huntsville and many of his elder family and friends were around when Thomson was painting in the Park. MacGregor has been connected to the story all his life, and after writing this fictional account, was still so fascinated by the story of the artist, that he wrote a biography of Thomson: Northern Light.
I was thrilled to have another connection to this part of our history, so I picked it as my read for the book club I’m in. I then managed to convince four of our book club members to have the discussion on a canoe trip in Algonquin Park. It was the perfect way to blend fact and fiction, theories and mystery of the tale of Tom Thomson told in Canoe Lake and Northern Light.
There’s a feeling in the park in the autumn of preservation. It’s as if after that tragic summer of 1917, the park was closed for good, and I’m the first one to open its gates again. I reveled in this romantic notion as I rented my canoe from the Portage Store to prepare for our book club trip, my own literary pilgrimage, in late September, 2011.
There are few tourists in autumn, but with an ominous stormy forecast, we had the lakes to ourselves as we paddled and portaged 10km to our campsite. What I couldn’t get over was the stillness of the park. It was cool, yes, but not windy, and the water was like glass. In the stern of my canoe I would get lost in thoughts of oil and canvas. As my eyes would lose focus looking out over the glassy water, I couldn’t help feeling on the verge of falling into some haunting abyss.
After steaks and baked potatoes cooked over a campfire, we went to sit on the large rocks, rough with moss. While sipping wine from various plastic vessels, we sat, looking at the stars, and discussing the mystery of the fabled Canadian painter.
And then the others went to sleep. I stayed up with the pages of Northern Light and then, Canoe Lake. The only sound was the rain, falling lightly on the tent and through the trees as I read:
Eleanor breathed deeply, surprised the clean forest should smell damp and musty like as a cellar. She stepped on a branch and it snapped, and she realized that Russell was moving up ahead in complete silence. The forest felt close, protective. She felt good. Perhaps it was the way they had felt back then – before, that is.
“Just up here,” Russell said.
Eleanor hurried on, breaking through to a flat clearing dominated by a huge birch tree that seemed too fat for its height. There was nothing to say anything had ever been here before. The birch, a few spruce, some bushes, rocks…
Russell saw none of that. When he came through the alders into the clearing he walked in on Jenny standing in her yellow dress staring at the stone and crying. He heard the buzz of Martin Bletcher, Sr.’s voice, and saw the men standing around with the light rain working down their foreheads in crooked lines. And he saw Tom’s casket, sinking into the ground. Gone forever.
“Over here,” he called.