Skip to main content

Farley Mowat parks himself in a wooden Adirondack chair on a grassy knoll near his house in River Bourgeois, Cape Breton. His safari shirt, his khaki multipocketed shorts, his heavy lace-up hiking boots, and the hat, a crinkled soft-straw Stetson, together give him the appearance of an age-defiant trekker who will bravely set out across any landscape, however harsh.

The landscape of choice for this sunny September afternoon is time, his career, his Canadian icon-hood, and the bumpy terrain of his literary reputation. At 85, Mowat moves across it nimbly. His only equipment is a glass of vodka and cranberry juice.

"You're interested in how I see myself in the panoply of Canadian writers, eh?" he says, rephrasing my question. "I couldn't give a shit!" he spits with a laugh. "I couldn't care less. I don't! I used to care. But I don't any more."

Story continues below advertisement

The feisty response is vintage Mowat. He may be Canadian, but polite and passive he is not. Still, this is a new Mowat in some ways. He appears to take no offence at the questioning of his literary record. He looks at me squarely through his large glasses without a cloud of concern passing over his elfin face. Difficult questions are flies upon his back that he simply swishes away, unfazed.

Even his latest book, Bay of Spirits: A Love Story, which hits bookstores today, suggests a change of mood. In an account of the period that he and his second wife, Claire, spent in Newfoundland at the start of their romance in the early sixties, it is a nostalgic, sweeter Mowat we encounter, not the one we have come to expect: the writer who narrates from a pulpit about the ways we have failed nature. He and Claire were aboard a boat named Happy Adventure, and that is exactly what this memoir is - a journey back into a joyous time in his life.

"Up until a few years ago," he says, describing the book's back story, "I still thought that there might be some hope for the human race, the human species. "And I was willing to go on being a preacher and flailing away at the injustices of life, but somewhere, quite recently, it dawned on me that I was wasting my time, and I didn't have a lot of time left to waste. And what do I want to do?" He pauses for a swig of his drink. "I had to go on writing, because I wouldn't be able to go on without writing. It is the only function that works for me, and without a function, we die.

"But what the hell was I going to write? The things I wrote about [in the past]were always close to my heart, but there was always a message, and there was hidden and not-so-hidden preaching. This time I didn't want to do that at all. I just wanted to re-experience a time and a way of life that was pleasantly memorable."

The memoir was to have begun in 1945, when Mowat returned to Canada after serving in the Second World War. But when he'd written it as far as the Newfoundland adventure, "1957 or thereabouts, I found myself far more interested in what was to come than in what I had written. And I lost interest in the whole earlier period."

He had written 50,000 words, but he set aside the earlier chapters and concentrated on what he says was a love affair with many things: with Newfoundland, its people and animals, his boat ("a strange love-hate affair," he chortles), his beloved dog, Albert, and "not least of all" he adds, with Claire.

"I hit warm water," he says of the momentum he felt when he was writing about this period in his life. "Immediately, I felt better and I was full of energy and I could swim like bloody mad. I could cross an ocean."

Story continues below advertisement

Mowat is known for charting his way across far choppier seas. He has been writing since 1949, and with sales of his books at over 40 million copies in 25 countries (his work has been translated into 52 languages), he is one of Canada's most successful writers.

But his best-known books, the ones that catapulted him to fame at the start of his career, notably People of the Deer and Never Cry Wolf, are both beloved and ridiculed. In 1996, now-defunct Saturday Night magazine published a damaging, well-researched profile of Mowat by John Goddard that outlined how he had fudged the facts in his accounts of having lived and worked in the Canadian Arctic.

Farley Mowat, to many people, is known as Hardly Knows It. They think of him in the way he was depicted on the magazine's infamous cover shot: with a digitally enhanced Pinocchio nose.

"That hurt," he says calmly of the attack. "It sure did. It was a bad year. But the recovery didn't take too long. I felt badly about it for probably six months," he avers, looking out placidly from beneath the rim of his hat.

"Then I began to realize that I was just lacerating myself. This guy hadn't hurt me!" he says of Goddard. "I was making myself miserable, and in that case, he was winning! So screw him!"

Still, most mentions of Mowat include an acknowledgment of the criticism. It is a burden his legacy will always carry. (Mowat wrote a rebuttal to the article, but it was weak, and although many defended him and his brand of "subjective journalism," the scar has never faded.)

Story continues below advertisement

Does he feel it affected his reputation? "If it did, it's not apparent to me," he declares. "It doesn't affect me directly." He remains silent for a moment, swilling the bits of ice in his glass.

"It may have affected my reputation," he continues after the pause. "But I don't give a damn about my reputation any more. The only thing that could really touch me from the human audience right now would be an individual rejection. If somebody came to me and said, 'Farley, you are dead wrong about who we are and what we are,' I would be upset. I would feel I'd missed the target. Rejection by an individual [reader]can hurt as much as it ever did, but rejection or criticism by that great amorphous mass called public opinion is now less than meaningful to me."

Mowat has always had contempt for the human animal - "Basically, we are turning ourselves into total aliens in the womb that gave us life," he says of our environmental behaviour - but his misanthropy seems now to have extended to all spheres of human endeavour, including the literary establishment.

"I never won a Governor-General's Award, you know," he blurts out at one point. "Oh, I did for a juvenile [ Lost in the Barrens, Mowat's first novel, written in 1956, won in the category of children's literature] But I never won for a major work of non-fiction."

Does that bother him? "No," he booms. "But it used to. I used to think, 'What's the matter with me?' But now it doesn't. The whole academic structure of rating writers strikes me as the height of inanity!"

He acknowledges that writers' egos make them care about awards. "No doubt," he offers in an offhand manner. "That attitude has served me as well. But I don't need it any more. I have dispensed with it. It's like taking off a suit of armour."

Story continues below advertisement

Mowat sits atop that lovely pinnacle of age, a wrinkled sage with his long, scraggly beard, surveying a view that is far-reaching and wide. He sees himself as a younger man in that vista as well, and is unafraid to criticize him for his own human shortcomings.

"It was an act of cowardice, and I admit it without any problem," he says, while on the subject of People of the Deer and the way he manipulated the facts. In the book, his first, he told of travelling to the North, west of Hudson Bay, to locate a remote community of Inuit who supposedly lived exclusively on caribou.

He wrote that he lived among them for two years and that they were starving to death. He blamed trappers, missionaries, and managers of the Hudson's Bay Company, as well as the Canadian government, for their shameful demise. But documents in his own archival material at McMaster University in Hamilton, made available in 1996, showed that he hadn't spent as much time as he said he did in the Arctic, and that he was accompanied on his travels by other field-biology workers.

"I'd just come through a heavy war," Mowat explains now. "I had learned about cowardice. I'd become a coward. That's how I survived.

"If I had been your average brave guy, I'd have been dead 10 times. So I learned about cowardice. It's one of the essentials in survival. It isn't there for fun. So I applied it with People of the Deer. I wouldn't do it now. I haven't got anything to lose now. But then, I did.

"The route I took was evasive because I was afraid of legal action. I was nervous about the Hudson's Bay Company. I was nervous about the RCMP. I was certainly nervous about the government and both the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church, who were also the great powers of the Arctic. I had taken all of them on. So I was trying to hedge my bets. Wherever I thought I could do it, I was evasive about dates, times, places, names. I didn't adhere to the journalistic principle that you get every fact exactly as it was. The facts became less important to me than what I was doing and the greater truth I was trying to illuminate.

"They could have made mincemeat out of me. Some things that I exposed, if I had specified who did it and why and how they did it, I would have been cut into little tiny bits and hung out to dry."

Mowat tells me this without fanfare, not to defend himself so much as to practise his principle of greater truth. He is approaching the end of his human life, and he forgives himself for the indulgences, good or bad, that he made along the way.

He is happy in his wrinkled, pale skin and in his habitat. For almost six months of the year, he and Claire - who says her own writing (memoirs and children's fiction) is greatly influenced by her husband, and the direct result of his encouragement - live on this rocky shore. For the winter, they return to their house in Port Hope, Ont.

So today, think of this Canadian icon swaying in his hammock, legs splayed, under a tree, in the late afternoon, after his post-lunch nap. Or think of him in the morning at his desk in the studio loft in the guest cottage. The fabric of his chair is repaired with silver duct tape. There's a feeder at his window so he can watch birds come and go. There are notes for an autobiography thumb-tacked to a bulletin board. His typewriter, an ancient Underwood, sits under a linen dishtowel that has a calendar on it of 1976.

Think of Mowat however you want. He is as content as his dog, Chester, who dances for his supper and sleeps blissfully in the sun. When Mowat takes him for a walk around the property, he tells me, he even joins him in marking his territory with a nice, leisurely pee. "That's what trees are for," he says.

Report an error
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter