MacGregor, Roy: Canoe Lake

Canoe Lake
MacGregor, Roy
McClelland & Stewart, 2002

First published in the Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Summer, 2002

Review by: Kerry Riley

Ever since the Highland Summer Festival’s marvelous production of Colours in the Storm, here in Haliburton, in 2001, I have felt a rather proprietary interest in all things “Tom Thomson.” Geographically speaking, of course, it’s quite baseless, this sense that Haliburton and Thomson share a connection. Algonquin Park was his (albeit brief) northern stomping grounds and while Huntsville could, perhaps, argue some indirect association through Thomson friends and contemporaries, Haliburton holds no credible claim. No credible factual claim that is. A self-confessed romantic, I do, however, feel that because his spirit came so convincingly to life on the stage of the Northern Lights Pavilion that summer, because we saw so much of ourselves and our history on that stage, because, in short, the play struck such a chord, we do have an emotional claim. Legends, after all, are by definition larger than life, and I see no need to limit the Thomson legend with precise geographic demarcations.

It was with some interest, therefore, that I noted the re-release by McClelland and Stewart, of Roy MacGregor’s fictionalized exploration of the Thomson mystery, originally published, in 1980, under the title Shorelines, and now available as Canoe Lake. Unlike myself, MacGregor has a very creditable connection to the Thomson story – it being a family matter. Winnie Trainor, the woman to whom Thomson may or may not have been engaged at the time of his death, was MacGregor’s aunt’s sister. She lived, until her death in 1962, in Huntsville, just up the street from the MacGregor family home.

The story opens as Eleanor Philpott, a troubled, middle-aged woman, is driving north to Vernon, Ontario (a fictional stand-in for Huntsville) in November, 1961. A Philadelphian by birth, living in Toronto, and a librarian by profession, reduced to working in the notions department of Eatons to make ends meet, she has, she feels, suffered her whole life from a chronic lack of identity. She has been, she realizes, simply acting out the concept of ‘Eleanor Philpott’ – a concept shaped by external expectations and not derived from her inner being, and, further, she has no idea who that inner being is.

Certain comments made by her mother on her deathbed, and some preliminary investigation on Eleanor’s part not only revealed that she was adopted, but led her to believe that her real parents were probably the now famous Canadian artist Thom Thomson, and his (alleged) fiancé, Janet Turner (Winnie Trainor). Encouraged by her psychiatrist (whose services she has enlisted in the hopes of overcoming some recent and troubling nervous “episodes”) she heads to Vernon, where the formidable Miss Turner still lives, to try and settle the question of her origins, and help herself rebuild a genuine identity.

By1961, it seems, the Thomson legend had been a big story for some time, with the town and surviving principles already weary of curious media, and acquisitive art dealers. Eleanor is met with a cool reception, particularly by the two remaining people who know the truth – Janet Turner and her lifelong friend, Russell Pemberton. At least initially, Eleanor must sift through peripheral sources of information for clues which would connect her to Thomson and Turner. Her investigation, of course, gives MacGregor the opportunity to lay out the Thomson story. All the essential and well-known points are touched upon – his growing relationship with Janet (Winnie) the widespread expectation of an engagement announcement, Thomson’s mercurial, and increasingly unpredictable temperament, his quarrel with Martin Bletcher, the loan of money to Shannon Fraser, the strange circumstances of his “drowning,” the lack of a proper autopsy, the mystery surrounding his exact place of burial, and reports of ghostly sightings. Although Eleanor comes away from her Vernon adventure convinced that she knows the truth, both Janet and Russell die before articulating it for the reader. Hence the mystery lives on.

For me, the idea of an illegitimate child as a reality, rather than simply malicious gossip, was a new element in the story, and one that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, assuming it was a purely fictional device. The trouble, of course, with fictionalized history is that, unless you’re an expert on the subject yourself, you can never be certain just where the boundaries between fact and fiction lie – it’s almost impossible to keep the story from colouring your understanding of the facts. Introducing an unsubstantiated idea which, by the standards of the principle character, was disgraceful, whatever the author’s qualifying remarks, struck me as unfair.

I am not the only one, it seems, who found the Eleanor character troubling – MacGregor admits, in a thoroughly fascinating after word, that the Trainor side of the family were also unhappy, that, in fact, the publication of the book “ended the relationship between our two families.” He goes on, in this after word, however, to demonstrate that although he knew of no real-life equivalent for Eleanor, he had unearthed credible evidence of the possibility of her (or perhaps, his) existence, and that “many years” after publication, an old-time and much-respected resident of Huntsville, then in his nineties, pulled MacGregor aside to confirm that his book told the story “pretty much the way it was.” In light of the late-breaking evidence, I reversed my position on Eleanor entirely, and now feel that her fictional dilemma provides an intriguing approach to the Thomson legend.

Although one can glean from the text the occasional evidence of a younger writer – a rare awkward or uncertain description (I’ve never known anyone whose natural hair colour even approached that of goldenrod, and some comments on Eleanor’s fashion choices seem researched rather than observed) — the essential MacGregor is there. He is, to my mind, the first Canadian writer to recognize and render in prose the essence of a particular central Ontario pre-World War II sensibility and the characters who possessed it.(This is a background shared by my father’s side of the family, and I feel I can speak with some authority on the subject.) He put this ability to spectacular use in his more recent memoir, A Life in the Bush: Lessons from my Father, but the authenticity of his earlier depiction of the fictional Vernon, a logging town on the borders of Algonquin Park, sets a much earlier precedent.

A thought-provoking addition to the Thomson arcana, entertainingly and sensitively written by someone with real connections to the area and some of the people who were there, Canoe Lake is an essential read for anyone with even a passing interest in the legend, its time and its place.

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