Eventually he wrote two books about his war experiences, the lacklustre The Regiment (1955) and the astute and poignant memoir And No Birds Sang in 1979. It took him years of living and the death of his own father in September, 1977, before he could come to terms with his visceral combat experience in Italy.
Back in the summer of 1946, overcome with revulsion at himself and his kind, he set off for northern Saskatchewan in a newly acquired Jeep, collecting bird specimens for the Royal Ontario Museum and visiting a remote Native settlement so he could learn more about the caribou that had fascinated him during his first trip to the North 10 years earlier.
A few months later, 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. Mr. Mowat finally obtained a Mexican divorce in March, 1965. A few days later, 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 The 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 a 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. Despite Mr. Mowat’s pleas to marine biologists, the police and the press, the ravaged whale succumbed to an infection.
After that, there wasn’t much point in continuing to live in Burgeo. He and his wife 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. Researching the book, which took him five years, was “so appalling” that even he had to “back off” every so often because it was “like constantly touring Auschwitz.”