CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 9. . . .November 4, 2016
Go Home Bay.
Susan Vande Griek. Pictures by Pascal Milelli.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2016.
32 pp., hardcover & pdf, $18.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55498-701-6 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-55498-702-3 (pdf).
Thomson, Tom, 1877-1917-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.
Review by Barbara McNeil.
...And one July day
Tom says to me,
“Let’s paint the wildflowers by the cottage door.”
He gives me oils and brush
and palette knife,
shows me how to petal them,
color them, shape them
make them bloom on a little board
Similar to thousands who have gone through Canadian classrooms, I have come to appreciate much about the elementary school education I received. An important part of that education was learning about the Group of Seven, early twentieth century painters who are among Canada’s most renowned and loved landscape artists. The teachers at my school made sure we did not leave school without knowing about Tom Thomson and his substantial influence on the Group of Seven. I recall that there were reproductions of Thomson’s famous The Jack Pine (1917) in the art room and in the administrative centre of my elementary school. These and other memories of my experience with Canadian art in school flooded me when I saw a copy of Go Home Bay in my mail box.
Among the unearthed memories was my remembrance of feeling somewhat alienated from the information imparted to us about the Group of Seven. Typically, lessons about Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven were among those in a long series about great Canadian men and their contributions to art, culture, science, technology and progress. This troubled me because girls and women were often excluded... I yearned for their inclusion. It is for that and other reasons that I am oh, so fired up about this new offering from two seasoned creators of Canadian children’s literature. There is a girl in the picture this time! It is she—Helen—who tells us about her father’s friend, Tom Thomson. Yes!
Based loosely on historical information, Go Home Bay is a fictionalized story, an imaginative remembrance, of events that may have taken place in summer 1914 when Helen MacCallum, a girl of privilege, met and was given painting lessons by the iconic Tom Thomson. The dust jacket of the book reverberates with the bold colours of a throbbing landscape (e.g., mauve, greens, orange, red, mustard yellow, blues and browns) and shows Helen, in front of a Jack pine, holding paint brushes and painted canvases looking down admiringly on Thomson, who, seated on a rock, is rendering his impression of the topography around him. Go Home Bay is a visual dazzler from the title page to the last.
Upon entering the text, readers are immediately swept up in Milelli’s reverential, Thomsonesque double-page spread which blasts with layered colours, a depiction of a stunning summer’s day on the craggy banks of Go Home Bay. The blues of the sky and the lake are in harmony. To the left hangs round, puffy, glowing clouds and to the right are more elongated ones hovering over the lake. Seated on the vividly coloured rocks is Helen, holding a book. This is her story. But make no mistake about it; it is the terrain, the setting, the magnificent northern Ontario landscape that is foregrounded here. Sky, clouds, lake, rocks, trees, Jack pines, shrub—they encircle the lone, young girl wanting more of summer and waiting for it happen. What Milelli skilfully and beautifully captures here in his art in the first double page spread is not just a breathtaking part of Ontario, Canada, it is most definitely a heavenly part of Turtle Island on a blue-sky, blue-lake kind of summer’s day. Thousands of years in the making, and a legacy preserved by Indigenous peoples of the area (e.g., the Chippewa) the illustrator creates a striking scene reminiscent of those that Thomson saw and responded to in his impressionist paintings (e.g., Autumn foliage, 1916; Woods in winter, 1917). The lyricality of the clouds, trees and rocks is captured in Griek’s similarly framed text: “On West Wind Island, at Go Home Bay, I’m swimming ...picnicing, rowing, reading through the long and away June, July days.” At this stage, Helen appears to under-appreciate the beauty that surrounds her; it is ordinary, familiar. She needs more; something new.
That something comes (in the form of someone) “one afternoon” in a “packed canoe, painted gray-blue... and steered by a man, paddle in hand.” The two page spread that shows Helen as she sees the man in the canoe is impressive in composition (e.g., Helen as onlooker, the lake, and its rock-lined banks), artistic technique (e.g., the swirling, glowing, rugged landscape adjacent to Helen’s profile), and colour (e.g., Helen’s tanned face and auburn-chestnut colored hair with touches of red and blue). Here, too, it is Helen who dominates the spread. It is correct and in order for Milelli to do so because Helen is the focalizer; it is from her perspective that the narrative unfolds, and the meeting with Thomson will become a pivotal moment in her life. Moving from left of the page, our attention is swept from the close-up profile of Helen across the dazzling spread to the stranger in the canoe on a blue-green lake and in front of a small Jack pine that is wind-blown in his direction. The stranger, the man in the canoe, is someone who is eventually introduced to Helen by her father as Mr. Thomson.
Milelli’s imagined version/vision of Tom is that of a handsome yet unassuming, mysterious, even shy, young man. Though Thomson was around 37 years old in 1914 when Helen met him, Milelli presents him in youthful beauty and in an intimate, detailed, large-scale, close-up.
Commanding the image, Milelli’s Thomson looks out directly at the reader/viewer with an aura of pensiveness as if almost on the verge of saying, I am “Tom”. Centered, the imagined Tom is backgrounded by cool colours from sky, water, and trees. This is in dramatic contrast to the brilliance of his red, orange, magenta and multi-hued shirt and is evocative of the colours found in some of Thomson’s paintings (e.g., Red leaves, 1914). Worth mentioning here are Milelli’s big, bold, brushstrokes that communicate his strong emotions about the subject: Tom Thomson and what he means to many of us as an artist and individual. This, like Milelli’s other paintings in the book, shows all of the artist’s markings on his surface; they are not covered up. We see the underneath, the layering, and stacking of brush marks through paint. Looking at Milelli’s art is an immersive experience; it submerges viewers through its lines and magnetic colours. This is visual art at its most powerful.
After Thomson’s introduction to readers, the next pages imagine and reveal Helen’s growing fascination with the visitor. It is in this way that the author shares/includes biographical details about Thomson: his love of the outdoors, canoeing, fishing and, of course, painting by the “island’s edge” where he “sketches... the bay’s choppy water [,] slapping rocky shores.” Helen’s watches and learns about and from Thomson. The information Vande Griek provides via the narrator is accompanied by Milelli’s colour-rich illustrations that are repeatedly done in Thomsonesque fashion. My goal here is not to in any way diminish Milelli’s appreciable skills as an artist but to underline Thomson’s influence on the illustrator. Quite clearly, the publisher has made an excellent choice in selecting Milelli to do the paintings for this book: They are stunning. Their intensity irresistible...
In one of the many memorable two-page spreads in the book where the painting and the verbal text work harmoniously in their storytelling, Helen tells of her evolving acquaintance with Thomson. She says,
I follow behind
In the afternoon breeze,
As Thom the painter hike the
To a spot where he stops
And from his painter’s box
Takes palette and brush,
Oils and board
And sketches there,
The bay’s choppy water
slapping rocky shores
At this stage in the picture book, Helen introduces readers to Tom the cook (e.g., “his tasty supper of mulligatawny stew”, Tom the fisherman (e.g., Tom comes back “with a string of fish, ... and then fries up a lunch time snack), Tom the painter (e.g., painting the bay’s choppy water in the above), and Tom the canoeist, and nature lover (e.g., He’s at home with the call of the loon, alone with the rose-blue sky). As the preceding illustrates, the creators of the book present Thomson as a multi-faceted man whom Helen finds admirable and fascinating. And then “one July day [,] Tom says to [her], “Let’s paint the wildflowers by the cottage door.” Thus began Helen’s apprenticeship in painting with Thomson, and this momentous occasion is effectively captured in a fetching illustration showing the master/mentor’s hand in art practice and that of his new student painting the wildflowers by the cottage door. This marks an important turning point in the story.
What follows next are two splendid two page spreads showing Tom and Helen, friends, tutor and tutee, painter and apprentice as they paint ordinary things (e.g., sketching her family’s rowboat and his canoe and “the houseboat, too”) in the “roses and greens, the pinks and blues, all the colors of Go Home Bay.” These illustrations highlight the communication between the Tom and Helen during the modelling and demonstrations the former provides the latter. In the second of the two illustrations mentioned here, the “Wild west wind blows” is the subject of dramatic spread revealing Tom as teacher pointing and shouting, “See how the branches sway and bend” and Helen, the learner, learning that an impending storm on and over a lake as well as a tree bent by the west wind are worthy subjects for paint and board. The verbal text suggests that Helen was there on at least one occasion when Thomson painted trees—Jack Pines (e.g., Thomson’s original sketch of The West Wind, oil on wood, 1916 and his oil on canvass painting, The West Wind, 1916-1917) that “are forever west wind bent.” It is in this way that Griek and Milelli thoughtfully share with young readers (some of whom are or may be artists), the story of some of Thomson’s most august works of art while at the same time demystifying for them art practice and art production (e.g., picturing the ordinary, picturing everyday events and occurrences in the natural world).
Following Milelli’s illustration of an imagined scene of Thomson and Helen on the edge of Go Home Bay watching an impending storm is an awe-inspiring image of four Jack pines growing out of a rocky shore and bent by the west wind—typical of the Precambrian lands and islands of the area. Likely inspired by Thomson’s The Jack Pine and The West Wind (sketch and painting); this is Milelli’s own superb artistic allusion to Thomson’s artistry: a very capable artist referencing an admired other while paying homage to the vegetation of the Georgian Bay.
In the last but one double page spread, the scene is less dramatic but no less captivating. In the cool of the night, Tom stands next to his friend and pupil. He has invited her out “in the summer dark ...to go out at night to the blue-black sky, [to] paint moonlight on water, moon over branches, bright up high.” Helen tells us that her mentor/teacher “guides [her] hand [and] ...guides [her] eye.” Thomson has taught her and has taught us to see familiar things in new ways, to appreciate the taken for granted, to honour the space and place on/in which we stand—to honour the land and all that is on, around, and above it. This is exactly what Milelli does through the spectacular penultimate illustration showing Thomson, Helen, Jack pines, golden moon, purple-blue sky and a shimmering lake at night. Emotion and mood are evoked together through an arresting image.
Time passes, and the “sketches stack up”. Helen’s father is pleased with the production and overall accomplishment of his daughter and of Thomson. Helen tells us that “Tom [paints] on and on throughout July” and soon it is time to part. The last illustration of the book is a two-page spread that could be called the “farewell scene.” A recurring line in the book is the west wind and the opening symbolic line on these pages is “Away the west wind blows.” Tom, too, is going away. He “paddles off” as he came: with the “gray-blue canoe packed full of fishing gear, camping gear, painting gear.” Helen and her father wave goodbye. He with his right hand and her, with her left hand because in her right hand, she “hold[s] tight to a Go Home Bay”—likely the small oil painting (“Boathouse, Go Home Bay”) that Tom had given to her. It is a souvenir, a remembrance of a “certain July, when Tom Thomson came by and taught [her] to paint.” By the end of that July, Helen is well aware of her privilege: the opportunity to meet and be taught by Tom Thomson and awareness of an even deeper privilege too. The latter, a result from knowing someone as a child and to later discover that the person has become famous and to ultimately recognize that you were in the presence of a stellar individual who took the time and care to teach what he knew well.
Noteworthy in the final scene of the last double page spread is the triadic relationship between Helen’s father (who stands to the left), Tom Thomson (somewhat centered, seated in his canoe in the middle of what is likely Go Home Lake) and Helen on right edge of the bay. Each character occupies his and her own space, but they are linked by the land/the setting and through art—painting, and relationality. In this scene, Milelli succeeds in visually communicating Helen’s appreciation of her special relationship with Tom Thomson.
Go Home Bay is an extraordinary accomplishment by Susan Vande Griek and Pascal Milelli and deserves to be in the hands of all Canadian students through their classroom, school and public libraries and, of course, via the purchasing power of their caregivers (parents and guardians). The book features five important subjects (though this is not intended to be an exhaustive list) that readers/students need to know about: the first is the setting, the land, the geography, topography, terrain of Go Home Bay/Lake (west Central Ontario, Canada, Township of Georgian Bay) and the condition in which it was when Thomson visited, lived, and painted there. Students need to know about the Indigeneity of the land and how it is a heritage of the Chippewa from which they were dispossessed by settlers. Though the picture book is silent on the matter of the Indigeneity of Go Home Bay in the rugged, windswept area of Georgian Bay that is a subject in some of Tom Thomson’s work, such knowledge needs to be a permanent part of the narrative children learn about when they study Thomson the painter, canoeist, fisherman, naturalist, and influential landscape artist. The second subject of the picture book that students need to know about is Helen McCallum’s father, eye specialist/ophthalmologist, Dr. James McCallum who was friend and patron of emerging Canadian artists such as Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. As group member, Franklin Carmichael wrote, "He took a keen and sincere delight in painting, and in helping painters,” “[n]ot in a charitable way, but by giving them the chance to help themselves, which is true help."*
Additionally, students need to be provided with opportunities to know how (e.g. through guided inquiry/research supervised by classroom teachers working in conjunction with school and/or public libraries) someone as economically and socially privileged as Dr. McCallum ethically used and can use his/her privilege to enable the professional development of others (e.g., Tom Thomson), social movement, and even prosperity of those who need support and to critically examine this way of being in the world.
However, the preceding is only a partial view of McCallum; a broader, more complex one is needed in reference to McCallum’s privilege as a settler. With regard to the last point, we teachers need to complicate McCallum’s as well as Helen’s story in order to address the topic of settler privilege related to McCallum’s owning a cottage on Go Home Lake/Go Home Bay and its relationship to the colonization of the area by settlers at the expense of the Indigenous Chippewa people of the region** . In addition, knowledge of Dr. McCallum as settler and as patron of the arts is important because it is he who made it possible for Thomson to meet and teach his daughter Helen to paint (by inviting the latter to his cottage on Go Home Bay).
The third subject of the book that school children need to learn about is Helen, the narrator of the story. Who was she, and what happened to her? These are important questions for young researchers to pursue. Along with the preceding, the fourth subject that begs for learners’ attention and extensive exploration is Tom Thomson: artist, positionality in (twentieth century) Canadian art, his impact on and relationship with the famed Group of Seven, individualist, outdoorsman, and one of the two principal characters in Go Home Bay. And naturally, this monograph is ideal for building on and deepening students’ knowledge about art in picture books, colour and artistic expression such as Thomson’s, Milelli’s and their very own. Furthermore, Go Home Bay is a wise and exciting choice for initiating discussions about the need for encouragement, guided support, mentorship and overall immersion in art practices, and in the development of young artists such as Helen and those found in schools.
Finally, the fifth subject that calls for (delightful) investigation are the creators of this stunner of a book: Van Griek and Milelli. Though both are to be congratulated for this gift of a book, Milelli merits special mention. Only an illustrator of deep intensity, passion, sensitivity, knowledge and skill could have been meaningfully selected to visually create a picture book based on a summer in the life of Tom Thomson. Milelli is such an illustrator. His, is a remarkable achievement and is not to be missed. May Go Home Bay find its way into the hands and heart of every Canadian (and their friends) at home and abroad. Certainly, no school or public library should be without it.
Dr. Barbara McNeil is an instructor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina in Regina, SK.
*Knight, W. (2015). A Landscape of Science: The Go Home Bay Biological Station. Retrieved from http://niche-canada.org/2015/04/20/a-landscape-of-science-the-go-home-bay-biological-station/
**King, R. (2012, September). What Tom Thomson Saw. The Walrus. Retrieved from
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