Farley 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 60-plus-year career as a 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. But it wasn’t all popcorn, tots of rum and fireside tales. 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, 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 an interview with The Globe and Mail 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.
Back in Canada, he was a battle-scarred veteran in psychic despair when he went on a scientific expedition to the Arctic in the late 1940s. “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 wrote about starving Inuit and, at least in his eyes, evidence of a callous government, which had corrupted their traditional lifestyle, abused them sexually and morally and then abandoned them. 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 in 1952, 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 Nunavut, 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.
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.
He used the same material about survival in a young-adult novel, Lost in the Barrens (1956), about two teenagers – an orphaned white boy and the son of a Cree chief – who are stranded above the tree line. Although the boys combine their training and skills, they almost die until they are saved by an Inuit boy. The book, which is clearly fiction, won a Governor-General’s Award in 1956 and the Canadian Library Association’s Book of the Year for Children Award in 1958.