Farley Mowat, one of the elder statesmen of Canadian literature, has died five days short of his 93rd birthday, a publishing industry source confirmed.
Mr. Mowat was a trickster, a ferocious imp with a silver pen, an ardent environmentalist who opened up the idea of the North to curious southerners, a public clown who hid his shyness behind flamboyant rum-swigging and kilt-flipping, and a passionate polemicist who blurred the lines between fiction and facts to dramatize his cause. Above all, he was a bestselling and prolific writer who kept generations of children (and their parents) spellbound by tales of adventures with wolves that were friendlier than people, whales in need of rescue, dogs who refused to cower, owls roosting in the rafters and boats that wouldn’t float.
In a 50-plus-year career as a freelance writer, he wrote more than 40 books including several memoirs, and won many prizes and honours including the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Order of Canada and several honorary degrees. Even as recently as July, 2009, Nicholas D. Kristof, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, listed Mr. Mowat’s The Dog who Wouldn’t Be (first published in 1957) as one of the best children’s books of all time.
But it wasn’t all popcorn, tots of rum and fireside tales. He was born in Belleville, Ont., on May 12, 1921. A lonely, only child, he turned to animals for friendship as a boy. Like many young men, he eagerly marched off to fight for King and Country in the Second World War, but the atrocities he witnessed and the killings he himself committed in the brutal Italian campaign so traumatized him that he turned again to his animal friends, if only in his imagination. It was in Ortona, Italy, against the backdrop of German guns, that he drafted early versions of The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be and Owls in the Family. “It was my salvation,” he said in November, 2009, about writing drafts of the books that would later make his legacy. For the rest of his life he preferred the company of The Others to members of his own species, as he disdainfully called human beings.
Back in Canada, he went on a scientific expedition to the Arctic in the late 1940s as a battle-scarred veteran in psychic despair. “I didn’t like the human goddamn race,” he told The Globe in 2005. “I had seen enough of its real naked horror during the war to convince me that we weren’t worth the powder to blow us to hell.” He went north “desperate to find” a “Shangri La” – however frigid – inhabited by people who could reassure him that “it was worthwhile belonging to the human race.”
Instead of a paradise, he found starving Inuit and, at least in his eyes, evidence of a callous government, which had corrupted the Natives’ traditional lifestyle, abused them sexually and morally and then abandoned them. While he was in the North, he received another emotional blow when his wife Fran, depressed by his absence, wrote him a letter, threatening to end their marriage. He quit the expedition, went south, and returned to his disaffected wife, thereby saving a troubled marriage, but thwarting his career as a scientific researcher.
Back in the south, he became a writer because he could, and because it seemed the best way to support himself and his family. In writing People of the Deer, Mr. Mowat projected his own loneliness and anguish on the Ihalmiut, a group of inland Inuit, living along the banks of the Kazan River, in what is now the Keewatin Region of the Northwest Territories, and reinvented himself as a heroic and solitary saviour of animals and people in a futile attempt to wash away the bloody detritus of the war that was clinging like plastic wrap to his psyche. “I couldn’t find my Shangri La because we had been there and destroyed it and I remain furious with those who destroyed it,” he said in November, 2009.
His book created a furor with its dramatic account of an innocent stone-age people living off the land and its furious indictment of the Canadian government’s mismanagement of the northern territories. Although many Arctic experts referred to him as “Hardly Know-It,” protesting that the Inuit had endured periodic cycles of illness and starvation for thousands of years, Mr. Mowat’s sensational book had an enormous impact both in the popular imagination and in the House of Commons in 1953.
“I wanted the truth about what happened to those people to be revealed,” he said in November, 2009. “I hoped by revealing it I would accomplish something in terms of our future behaviour towards Native people and perhaps for their survivors. The objective was legitimate and valid, but the process was not a process we like in our society, which operates on the basis of candid truth.”