Early in 1937, his father was appointed Inspector of Public Libraries for Ontario. The family settled into a house at 90 Lonsdale Road and Farley, who enrolled in North Toronto Collegiate, spent as much time as possible in the winters exploring the ornithology collections at the Royal Ontario Museum and in the summers fled back to his beloved West to collect specimens.
After Canada declared war on Germany in September, 1939, Mr. Mowat – 18 years of age and barely 5 foot 7 – joined the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment – or the Hasty Pees, as they were known – as a 2nd lieutenant. After training in England, he sailed from Greenock, Scotland, in June, 1943, to join Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army in Sicily. Their goal – to drive the Germans out of Italy – was met with ferocious resistance as the Allies fought their way up the boot in one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war.
As an ignorant boy, he had longed for glory and adventure on the battlefield. The reality of combat sickened him. He hated his own fear, the stupid waste of human lives on both sides, and war’s devastation of the built and natural landscape. During one particularly brutal operation, he crawled into a stone hut and found three dead German soldiers and thought the fourth was going to kill him until he saw that the “weapon” he was holding in one hand was the shattered stump of his other arm. As the mortally wounded German gasped “wasser” (water), 2Lt. Mowat realized, in the first intimations of a profound and relentless despair, that humans were the only species that killed its own kind – not for food or in self-defence, but out of arrogance, rage and revenge.
An inveterate collector, he began amassing war spoils after the Germans surrendered in May, 1945, and he had finished the war with the rank of captain. Only one item of the more than 900 tons of equipment he collected with some pals still survives: a manned V-1, which is now in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
Buoyed by his veteran’s stipend, he enrolled in the University of Toronto in September, 1946. Although a fitful student, he achieved good marks at university and met Frances Elizabeth Thornhill, the woman who became his first wife on Dec. 20, 1947. Their marriage, which produced two sons, Robert Alexander (Sandy) and David Peter, suffered from her depressions and his absences and dalliances with other women. But they were also the years of some of his greatest successes as a writer, including the classic The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be and Lost in the Barrens. After his divorce, he married his companion, graphic designer and writer Claire Wheeler, a woman he later said was “as radiantly lovely as any Saxon goddess.”
Searching for a place to be at peace with himself and his surroundings was a constant theme in Mr. Mowat’s life. In the early 1960s, about the time that he began researching and writing Westviking (1965) and Curse of the Viking Grave (1966), Mr. Mowat and Ms. Wheeler began spending large parts of the year in Burgeo, an outport on the southwest shore of Newfoundland, travelling to Ontario for family visits and for filming and publicity appearances in Toronto.
In the eight years that the Mowats lived in Burgeo, he wrote three books about his initial admiration and wonder for the outport way of life and his eventual disenchantment and unhappiness. The Rock Within the Sea (1968) depicts Newfoundlanders as heroic people uncorrupted by modern technology; The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float (1969) is an amusing memoir of his misadventures trying to sail the hapless vessel Happy Adventure from Newfoundland to Ontario; and A Whale for the Killing (1972) is Mr. Mowat the conservationist pitted against the self-interest of local fishermen. Naively, he thought the beaching of an 80-ton fin whale in a Newfoundland lagoon was a magnificent opportunity to study the mammoth creature; the locals thought otherwise, and the book turned into a howl of outrage at the villagers who shot the whale with rifles and hacked her back open with a propeller.