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.
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.
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.
After that, there wasn’t much point in continuing to live in Burgeo. He and Claire moved back to Ontario, settling in Port Hope, the town east of Toronto where his father had lived for many years, and bought a place in Cape Breton, where they spent the summer months. But moving away from Newfoundland didn’t dissipate his rage at the consequences of human greed on the whaling and cod fishing industries. In fact, he seemed to get angrier the farther inland he carried his typewriter.
In 1984 he published a denunciation of “the destruction of animal life in the north Atlantic” dating back to John Cabot’s arrival in what is now Newfoundland in 1497. Sea of Slaughter, or “his great sermon,” was his favourite book in terms of intent because it provided an exhaustive “record of man’s inhuman attitude toward life on Earth,” but also his greatest failure because he gave readers too much “truth” and overloaded the narrative.
The following year, about to embark on an American promotional tour for Sea of Slaughter, he was stopped by U.S. customs officials at Pearson Airport in Toronto and refused entry under a McCarthy-era law that enabled border officials to turn away foreigners holding subversive political beliefs, which usually meant people who were suspected of being Communist sympathizers.
Mr. Mowat, a self-promoter from way back, believed the gun lobby was behind his exclusion, and went public with his suspicions. There was a media frenzy on both sides of the border, but the 1952 law wasn’t repealed until 1990. By then, Mr. Mowat had long since turned his experience – including the RCMP’s role in supplying information about him to U.S. authorities – into yet another book, My Discovery of America, a short diatribe unleashed in 1985.
His own problems with officialdom probably piqued his curiosity about his next obsession: Dian Fossey, the American anthropologist who was found dead, with an axe in her skull, atop a mountain in Rwanda in 1985. Ms. Fossey, famous for her pioneering behavioural studies of the endangered mountain gorillas of Virunga, was, like Mr. Mowat, stubborn, outspoken, passionate and openly defiant of authority. Mr. Mowat, who rarely, if ever, wrote from any perspective other than his own, published Virunga: The Passion of Dian Fossey in 1987.
Determined to go out at his post, banging away on his manual typewriter on the second floor of a heated shed in his backyard, Mr. Mowat insisted that writing was the only function – “well, almost only function” – that he was still capable of performing as he approached his tenth decade. He refused to have a bulging aortic aneurysm treated or to undergo a triple-bypass several years ago and he insisted until the end of his life that refusing medical intervention not only prolonged his existence, but enabled him to enjoy a higher quality of life. “I’m floating on a very, very thin surface tension, which can erupt at any moment. Fine, so be it,” he said with typical defiance. And as he lived, so he died, at 92, after railing earlier this week against plans to offer limited WiFi in national parks. He will be missed.