A Review of Tom Wilson's Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home
Review by Diane Schoemperlen
“We survive, and with those skills, and in that survival, we create art,” writes three-time Juno- winning Hamilton musician Tom Wilson in his poignant and powerful memoir, Beautiful Scars. In addition to the success over many years of his bands Junkhouse, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, and now his most recent incarnation, Lee Harvey Osmond, Tom Wilson has also exhibited his visual art in New York, Vancouver, Toronto, and Ottawa. Add now to these impressive accomplishments, the publication of his first book, and there can be no doubt that he is indeed an extremely creative and multi-talented survivor.
Wilson’s memoir is much more than yet another retelling of the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll story that many other musicians before him have told. All of that is in the book — addiction, demons, destruction, and the toll it took on Tom and those he loved —and all of it is told very well — but beneath and behind this, always there lurks Wilson’s search for truth and his place in the world.
When baby Tom arrived in 1959, his parents, Bunny and George Wilson, were already old compared to most new parents: Bunny was 47 and George, a hero who had come home from the war blinded and addicted to morphine, was 51 years old. Wilson’s evocative descriptions of growing up poor in Steeltown in the sixties drew me deep back into my own early years in the blue-collar neighbourhood of Westfort in Thunder Bay. There, instead of the steel mill, we had the paper mill and also several grain elevators, where my father—who was also named George—began working soon after his return from the war, and where he remained until his retirement decades later. In Westfort, we too, as Wilson so eloquently puts it, “…were interested in the world from a distance, like it was unattainable and not for guys like us from the East Mountain.”
Questions about Wilson’s true parentage are raised in the first chapter. Even as a young child, he felt he didn’t belong with these people and, when he went over everything he knew, none of it added up. He writes, “In my mind my birth was like the nativity, only with gnarly dogs and dirty snow and a chipped picket fence and old blind people with short tempers and dim lights, ashtrays full of Export Plain cigarette butts and bottles of rum.” At the tender age of four, he asked Bunny why she was so old and why he didn’t look anything like either her or George. To which Bunny replied, “There are secrets I know about you that I’ll take to my grave.”
Take them to her grave she did. Bunny died of Alzheimer’s in 2010. By that time, George had been dead for over 20 years, also of Alzheimer’s — the disease they call “the long goodbye” that took my father as well — the disease in which all the secrets of a lifetime are lost too. And long before their deaths, Tom Wilson had become, as he describes it, a secret to himself. The mystery is not completely solved until he is 56 years old, long clean and sober, and the father of two grown children, Madeline and Thompson, two strong people of whom Wilson writes, “These two have stuck by me, pulled me out of the ditch, dusted me off and saved my life with their true loving hearts many times over.”
I have no doubt that Beautiful Scars will intrigue and captivate a wide readership but, for these two people, I cannot help but imagine, it is more than a book. It is a precious gift, a legacy of insight and truth from a father who finally knows who he is and where he belongs.
Diane Schoemperlen is the author of 14 books, including This Is Not My Life: A Memoir of Love, Prison, and Other Complications which was shortlisted for the 2017 RBC Taylor Prize. Her collection Forms of Devotion: Stories and Pictures won the 1998 Governor-General’s Award for English Fiction. She received the 2007 Marian Engel Award from the Writers’ Trust of Canada. Born in Thunder Bay, she has lived in Kingston, Ontario for 30 years.