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Book Reviews

The Log Driver’s Waltz

by Jennifer Phelan (ill.); Wade Hemsworth

Almost 40 years after the The Log Driver’s Waltz appeared as a National Film Board animated vignette, Toronto illustrator Jennifer Phelan brings a thoughtful, female-driven interpretation of the classic folk song to a new generation of Canadian kids.

The 1979 Log Driver’s Waltz cartoon short featured a nimble log driver floating in and out of the life of a female admirer as she looked on with literal googly eyes. There is still romance in Phelan’s version, but this time readers experience the courtship from the unnamed woman’s perspective. After seeing the log driver, she climbs out of a window wearing hiking boots and a backpack, showing that she is the one taking action and making the decision to pursue the log driver. When the two finally meet, it’s in a dance that is part flapper, part disco as they take turns lifting and leading each other. There’s no white dress at the end, just the woman driving a train in a conductor’s hat while the log driver dances on the train cars.

Even with these changes, Phelan’s illustrations maintain the nostalgia and cozy feel of the original animation. She uses watercolour pencil, which produces a light but textured stroke – each illustration looks subtly well loved, like it has been folded up and carried around in a pocket all day. The colour palette is snug and homey, with rusty oranges, black-ish greens, and tinges of pink when love starts to bloom. Most images bring to mind a crisp fall day during magic hour.

The text faces the same challenges as similar song-turned-picture-book adaptations: lyrics full of run-on sentences with no natural page breaks, repetition of a chorus that doesn’t advance the narrative, and – in this case – some outdated language (“a log driver’s waltz pleases girls completely”). But Phelan’s illustrations buoy the text for Waltz newcomers and offer Easter eggs for die-hard fans with nods to both John Weldon (the director and animator of the NFB short) and the McGarrigle sisters (who performed the song for the cartoon) hidden in the illustrations.

Phelan steps lightly, but decisively, in interpreting The Log Driver’s Waltz, preserving the song’s inherent birl without overshadowing the agency and decision-making power of a girl.