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Farley Mowat, photographed in his Port Hope, Ont., home on October 13, 2010. Mr. Mowat died on Tuesday, May 6, 2014. He was 92. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Farley Mowat, photographed in his Port Hope, Ont., home on October 13, 2010. Mr. Mowat died on Tuesday, May 6, 2014. He was 92. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Scarred by war, acclaimed author Farley Mowat spent his life trying to save animals, nature and First Nations Add to ...

Globe and Mail Update May. 07 2014, 1:15 PM EDT

Video: In his own words: The life and times of Farley Mowat

He revisited the Ihalmiut in The Desperate People, a “completely factual” account published in 1959 that he considers a “twin” of its controversial predecessor. The book was not a hit, either with critics or readers, because the narrative, in Mr. Mowat’s own estimation, was not dramatic or compelling enough. “That is precisely why People of the Deer was written the way it was and why I continue to do the same thing,” he said later. “I will take any liberty I want with the facts so long as I don’t trespass on the truth.” By that he meant that facts, which can be shaped and selected to make an argument, are neither absolute nor inviolate. Truth was something else in his view, an imaginative and even fictional construct that illuminated a universal reality – what many have come to call creative non-fiction.

Journalist John Goddard disinterred the ancient controversy over People of the Deer in a devastating attack on Mr. Mowat’s credibility in Saturday Night magazine in May, 1996, complete with a photographically altered cover image of the author – his nose attenuated like Pinocchio’s when he told a fib. Using Mr. Mowat’s own diaries and logbooks as evidence, Mr. Goddard tore apart the factual basis for several of the naturalist’s books on the North, including People of the Deer, The Desperate People and his 1963 memoir Never Cry Wolf.

To condemn Mr. Mowat as merely a fabricator is simplistic. Substantial good did come of his “dramatizing.” It aroused furious debate and helped push the government of the day to greater efforts to support the Inuit and to approach northern development in a more serious and enlightened way. Nevertheless, his early success as a bestselling writer came at substantial personal cost. No matter how many bestselling books he wrote later, no matter how many causes he espoused, no matter how many campaigns he launched to save the environment, he was always considered with a metaphorical nudge. And that, inevitably, added to his inherent anxiety about himself and his place in the world.

Farley Mowat’s birth on May 12, 1921, in Belleville, Ont., although rapid, was uneventful, unlike his conception, which has become the stuff of legend. His father, the librarian Angus Mowat, enjoyed boasting that his only son was conceived in a green canoe on the Bay of Quinte.

Farley’s mother Helen (née Thomson) was the daughter of a bank manager with Molson Bank, and his father was the grandson of Sir Oliver Mowat, Ontario’s third premier. Farley, or Bunje, as his father dubbed him, began school in nearby Trenton, but his parents moved so frequently (as his father meandered from one job to another before finally training to become a librarian in the late 1920s) that he lived, often in straitened conditions, in four different towns before he turned 11.

In January, 1933, his father was appointed chief librarian of Saskatoon, requiring a move west, a trip the family made in Rolling Home, a ship’s cabin mounted on the four-wheel frame of a Model T Ford truck. It was in Saskatoon, just before his 13th birthday, that Farley was given Mutt, the mixed-breed canine that later became the subject of one of his best-loved books – and his own favourite – The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be.

The summer of 1936 was a turning point in Farley’s life as a nascent naturalist. In June, his great uncle, the ornithologist Frank Farley, arrived from his homestead in Camrose, Alta., along with a colleague, Albert Wilks. The two men scooped up Farley and took him to Churchill, Man., on the west coast of Hudson Bay, on a six-week expedition studying Arctic birds and collecting their eggs. For Farley, who was barely 15, the trip was a golden opportunity to explore the tundra. As they headed north, he observed the boreal forest give way to the stunted trees of the Barrens. He then saw “la foule,” or “the throng,” the mass migration of the caribou, an overwhelming sight that he remembered for the rest of his life.

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