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The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson:
Study Guide

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Master Class

The following ‘Master Class’ exercises are designed to meet the needs of students studying English and the Arts at the high school level. Teachers may select the most relevant exercises from the list below.

English curriculum links include: using reading comprehension strategies to demonstrate understanding of visual narratives; making inferences about storyline, setting and character based on composition and sequencing of images; extending understanding of texts through research, comparison with other formats and individual and team-based reflection on content; analysing and evaluating the effectiveness of the wordless novel form in telling the visual narrative

Arts curriculum links include: using the critical analysis process to demonstrate an understanding of the form and function of images in the visual narrative; evaluating the text’s artistic effectiveness, with specific reference to historical and contemporary artistic context; learning the terminology, techniques, practices and historical context of printmaking, specifically the wordless novel format; using creative strategies to brainstorm new art works using the text as a model

Reading Comprehension Activity

Choose an image from The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson and answer the following questions as best you can. Refer to the Chronology of Events, the Glossary of People & Places and your own research in your answer.

  1. Who are the people and/or what are the places depicted in the image?
  2. What clues does the image give us about the time in which the story takes place?
  3. What does the image suggest about life in that era?
  4. What purpose does the image serve in furthering the storyline in the wordless narrative as a whole?

Narrative Interpretation Activity

Near to the end of The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson, the artist inserts himself into the narrative, somewhat disguised as a sport fisherman.

  1. What does this intervention suggest about the nature of the narrative?
  2. What does it suggest about the nature of storytelling in general?

NOTE: You may wish to refer to Tom Smart’s introduction to the wordless novel, or, alternatively, you may want to consider the similarities between the wordless novel as it was perfected by Frans Masereel in Passionate Journey (1919) and the silent films of Hollywood that were popular from 1895 to 1936. Bear in mind that the American artist Lynd Ward has admitted that, to create a wordless novel, he first had to visualize it in his head as a silent film.

You may also want to consider that George Walker’s next wordless novel (as yet uncompleted) presents the career of Mary Pickford, born in Toronto on University Avenue, who went on to found United Artists with Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks.

Wordless Novel Format Comprehension Activity

Consider the form of The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson and answer the following questions.

  1. How does the wordless novel format differ from other graphic novels that you have read?
  2. What are some of the limitations of telling a story without using any words?
  3. What are some of the advantages?
  4. Are there any types of stories that are particularly well-suited to being told without words? Explain why or why not.

Artistic Interpretation Activity

Engraving of Tom Thomson canoeing

Consider the melancholic image that appears on page 165 of The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson.

  1. If this image were presented as a frame in a silent movie, there would be a soundtrack. What do you ‘hear’, when you look at the engraving?
  2. What sort of tone do you think the image communicates?
  3. Which artistic elements in the image contribute to this effect?
  4. If you were the artist, what are some other techniques you might have used to complement this tone?

Creative Writing Activity 1

Engraving of a parade Engraving of Tom Thomson at work

Choose one of these two images from The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson (either page 35 or 53).

  1. Write a prose vignette inspired by the scene.
  2. Feel free to develop your own characters, but be sure to stay true to the setting evoked by the image as you write.

(The marching band, for example, is almost certainly part of an Orangeman’s Parade at which Protestants celebrate Prince William of Orange’s victory over King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The parade is typically staged each summer on July 12. In 1914, the parade would have happened just weeks before the start of World War I. Is George Walker trying to tell us something about the inevitability of war?)

Creative Writing Activity 2

Choose a series of five consecutive images from The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson.

  1. Provide captions or dialogue for each image.
  2. Explain why you chose to include the words you did.

NOTE: Consider the tone of the image as well as the vocabulary of the period as you complete the exercise.

Research Activity 1

Do some research of your own on the Group of Seven. Write a paragraph or two that explains their significance to the development of Canadian art. Who were the members? What were they known for? Why are they still remembered today?

Research Activity 2

Do some of your own research on Canada as it was in 1917. What was the political situation? What were some of the biggest news headlines of the era? What were some of the inventions, tools and products that were popular at the time?

Creative Writing / Design / Research Activity

Do some research on commercial design in the 1910s. Consider:

  1. What did newspaper or magazine advertisements look like?
  2. What kinds of elements did they include?
  3. What sorts of products did they promote?
  4. How did they differ from the magazine and newspaper ads we see today?
  5. Once you have done your research, design your own advertisement in the style of Tom Thomson’s time, paying attention, in particular, to the typography and the penmanship.

Essay Question

What do you think happened to Tom Thomson at the end? Make reference to primary and secondary sources to support your claims.

Last Little Bit

Tom Thomson is buried either at Leith, on the eastern shore of Owen Sound Bay or Mowat Cemetary at Canoe Lake. Make your choice, then send your answer to a friend by texting in Morse Code (dots, dashes and spaces, no words).

HINT: Keep your answer short, just like a telegraph operator would, or you’ll be typing for a long while.

Further Reading:

A number of educators, readers and art lovers have suggested possible exercises, applications and resources that can be used to study The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson.

(Download in the Materials section below.)


Canoe image download

Artistic Interpretation Activity printable image
275 KB


Parade image download

Creative Writing Activity 1 printable image 1
275 KB


Grip image download

Creative Writing Activity 1 printable image 2
275 KB


preface download

‘Still More Ideas’ for teaching The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson
118 KB


This Study Guide is available as a free download in Pdf format to anyone interested in using it as an aid to teaching George A. Walker's The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson (2012). The Guide may not be copied and offered for sale by any third party. This Study Guide is produced with the support of the Ontario Media Development Corporation and the Ontario Ministry of Education.

funding logos

The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

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