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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Canadian Railroad Trilogy, written by Gordon Lightfoot with art by Ian Wallace. Groundwood, 2010. $24.95 all ages

"And when the young man's fancy had turned him to the spring,
The railroad men grew restless for to hear their hammers ring.
Their minds were overflowing with the visions of their day,
With many a fortune won and lost and many a debt to pay.
For they looked to the future and what did they see,
They saw an iron road runnin' from the sea to the sea."

This Gordon Lightfoot song was commissioned by the CBC for a special broadcast on January 1, 1967. It was written to commemorate Canada's Centennial year and to recount the building of the Transcontinental railway. In writing the song, Lightfoot tells a powerful and poignant story, not veering away from the tragic events that were a part of its history. All was not beneficial to the hardworking men (mostly Chinese immigrants) who built it, or to the aboriginal people whose land was lost in the wake of its construction. Their way of life was forever changed as the government forged forward to lay a line of steel through all they had known.

It had all the makings of a remarkable be able to connect the people of Canada from one sea to the other, to carry goods to new settlers in a new land, and to provide another means of transportation for the many who were arriving in Canada. Loss of life and land added another less desirable dimension to the politicians' dream of a united country.

Ian Wallace chose a new medium for himself in creating the images that so richly bring the story to life. The illustrations are done on gray pastel papers, using homemade chalk pastels. They give depth and fluidity to the powerful words of the song. He misses nothing as he moves from sea to sea, showing the Niagara Falls mist, the majesty of the mountains, the wide expanse of prairie sky. They are often breathtaking. I really appreciate the notes he has included following the text, where he explains each image and offers up a quick history lesson for readers.

One of my favorites (only one of many) is the steam engine confronting the bison on the vast plains, sky alight with the drama of the sunset and steam puffing an image of the whole of Canada that is to be connected by the iron horse. Lovely and memorable!

Music and lyrics are also an integral part of the whole, as is the brief history of the CPR and suggestions for further reading.

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