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Canadian Railroad Trilogy by Gordon Lightfoot. Illustrated by Ian Wallace. Groundwood/Douglas and McIntyre, 2010.

“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.

In this marvellous and yes, iconic, book, Wallace succeeds in both honouring Lightfoot’s song and replaying it in a most original way. [A]rguably “a Book of the Year" ... The Globe and Mail

The atmospheric illustrations each explained in wonderfully detailed endnotes capture not only the workers' toil but also the splendor of the Canadian landscape. – Kirkus Reviews [Starred Review]

Ian Wallace, one of Canada's foremost picture book artists, has produced illustrations worthy of Lightfoot's song in their intensity, evocative power, and shifting moods. Working in what is for him a new medium (chalk pastels), and creating scenes ranging from mountain landscapes to dream-like collages to humorous interiors, Wallace adds his own impressions of what the railroad has meant to Canada – including its effect on the First Nations and the heavy death toll among labourers.– Quill & Quire [Starred Review]

Although some paintings show the railway in detail, it's less a book about railroads than it is about the history and settlement of Canada itself....a huge and unusual project, and Wallace has executed it with admirable care. – Publishers Weekly [Starred Review]

I don't know of another more skilled illustrator who could have done justice to these amazing words than award-winning illustrator Ian Wallace. The visuals are just jaw-dropping spectacular! ... Highly recommended. – CM Magazine

This volume would be a perfect addition to a unit on Canadian history or the building of the railway for any age group ... Well worthwhile for all Canadian school libraries! – Canadian Teacher Magazine

Copyright © Ian Wallace