Skip to main content

Detail of an illustration from Canadian Railroad Trilogy

"There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run/ When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun." Thus begins Gordon Lightfoot's Canadian Railroad Trilogy, the great ode to Canada's transcontinental railway.

In his illustrator's notes for Canadian Railroad Trilogy, the book, Ian Wallace writes that Lightfoot's song is about a dream - "the dream of a prime minister and government, entrepreneurs and capitalists, engineers and workers, and the citizens of a young growing nation." But what was a dream for some was a nightmare for others: the displaced aboriginal people and the workers, the majority of them Chinese, who toiled and too often died in service to this dream.

Wallace's art captures this dichotomy and others inherent in railway-building and country-building. Using handmade chalk pastels on grey pastel paper, he has created stunning, many-hued, double-page illustrations that are those of a modern-day (and very Canadian) William Blake: visionary and dream-like, and at the same time charged with energy and ebullience. Shades of the dark side of the endeavour are intimated in black smoke belching from the black train engine crossing golden fields and visible in the faces and body language of the workers.

Story continues below advertisement

In this marvellous and yes, iconic, book, Wallace succeeds in both honouring Lightfoot's song and replaying it in a most original way. That this, arguably "a Book of the Year," is not on the short list for the Governor-General's Award for Children's Literature - Illustration is baffling, to say the very least.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to