Acclaimed Canadian author Farley Mowat dead at 92

The Globe and Mail

Farley Mowat, seen here at age 89, in his Port Hope, Ontario home on October 13, 2010. (The Globe and Mail/Peter Power)

Farley Mowat, one of the elder statesmen of Canadian literature, has died five days short of his 93rd birthday, a publishing industry source confirmed.

Mr. 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.

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

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

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In a 50-plus-year career as a freelance 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. Even as recently as July, 2009, Nicholas D. Kristof, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, listed Mr. Mowat’s The Dog who Wouldn’t Be (first published in 1957) as one of the best children’s books of all time.

But it wasn’t all popcorn, tots of rum and fireside tales. He was born in Belleville, Ont., on May 12, 1921. 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, Italy, 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 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, as he disdainfully called human beings.

Back in Canada, he went on a scientific expedition to the Arctic in the late 1940s as a battle-scarred veteran in psychic despair. “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 found starving Inuit and, at least in his eyes, evidence of a callous government, which had corrupted the Natives’ traditional lifestyle, abused them sexually and morally and then abandoned them. While he was in the North, he received another emotional blow when his wife Fran, depressed by his absence, wrote him a letter, threatening to end their marriage. He quit the expedition, went south, and returned to his disaffected wife, thereby saving a troubled marriage, but thwarting his career as a scientific researcher.

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, 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 the Keewatin Region of the Northwest Territories, 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. “I couldn’t find my Shangri La because we had been there and destroyed it and I remain furious with those who destroyed it,” he said in November, 2009.

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.

“I wanted the truth about what happened to those people to be revealed,” he said in November, 2009. “I hoped by revealing it I would accomplish something in terms of our future behaviour towards Native people and perhaps for their survivors. The objective was legitimate and valid, but the process was not a process we like in our society, which operates on the basis of candid truth.”

Mr. Mowat was not alone in raising alarms about starving Inuit. The late photojournalist Richard Harrington made five journeys to far North between 1948 and 1953, travelling by dog sled to observe and photograph the Padleimuit in the High Arctic. He captured iconic portraits of a starving Padleimiut clan in the late winter of 1950 and raised such an outcry, when he made it back to Churchill, Man., that the Canadian government sent supply planes to drop food near the Padleimiut’s remote camps – most of it inappropriate and too late, alas.

Mr. Mowat also 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 Canada Library Association’s Book of the Year for Children Award in 1958.

He revisited the Ihalmuit 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 told The Globe in November, 2009. “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 log books 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.

According to Mr. Goddard, who had read Mr. Mowat’s diaries and log books at Library and Archives Canada and at McMaster University in Hamilton, the writer and adventurer spent only two summer field seasons – fewer than six months – in the Arctic Barrenlands. and not on his own, as he claimed, but as a junior and lacklustre member of well-organized scientific expeditions. Mr. Mowat never saw a starving Inuit, never visited an Inuit camp and he abandoned his wolf-den observations after less than a month. When confronted by Mr. Goddard, he at first said that “I may elaborate ... but I don’t invent,” and later justified his actions in terms of serving a greater good. “As far as I am concerned, People of the Deer did nothing but good. ... Nobody was going to pay any attention to them unless their situation was dramatized, and I dramatized it.” Two years later, the late Peter Gzowski raised the issue with him in an onstage interview at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, and Mr. Mowat bellowed: “Fuck the facts. The truth is what is important.”

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 a substantial personal cost because of the sizable chink in his credibility. No matter how many bestselling books he wrote afterward, no matter how many causes he espoused, no matter how many campaigns he launched to save the environment, he was always greeted 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 he had conceived his only son in a green canoe in the Bay of Quinte. That story was likely appropriated by Pierre Berton for his oft-quoted definition of a Canadian as somebody who knows how to make love in a canoe.

Farley’s mother Helen (née Thomson) was the daughter of a bank manager with the Molson Bank and his father Angus 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 which the family made in Rolling Home, a ship’s cabin mounted on the four-wheel frame of a Model T Ford truck. For Farley, who was 12, the trip vividly juxtaposed the richness of the natural world and the gritty poverty and decrepit dwellings of many of the out-of-work humans they encountered en route in depression-plagued Canada.

It was in Saskatoon, just before his 13th birthday that Farley was given Mutt, the mixed-breed canine who later became the subject of one of his best loved – and his own favourite – books, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be. The Mowats and Mutt travelled to the West Coast in the summer of 1934 in Rolling Home, all four of them wearing motorcycle goggles, and all of them providing raw material that Farley would later weave into his bestselling narrative. When Mutt was killed by a speeding truck driver in April, 1940, Farley was devastated.

A loner who was more attuned to the natural environment than schoolyard and neighbourhood friendships, Farley was urged by his parents to join cubs, Sunday School, the Children’s Choir and Little Theatre, but the most successful of these ventures was the Beaver Club of Amateur Naturalists, a rigorous hiking and bird- and animal-watching club he started himself with four boys and three girls.

He also began a magazine, Nature Lore: The Official Organ of the Beaver Club of Amateur Naturalists. In the spring of 1936, he persuaded the editor of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix to let him write a column, Birds of the Seasons, in the children’s section at $5 a week. Alas, irate subscribers complained after Farley wrote a graphic description of the mating habits of the ruddy duck and the column was abruptly cancelled. He continued bird-watching on his own, becoming the youngest person in Canada to have an official bird-bander’s permit, according to biographer James King in Farley: The Life of Farley Mowat.

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 on the west coast of Hudson Bay on a six-week expedition studying Arctic birds and collecting their eggs. For Farley, who was barely 16, 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 and then he saw la foule, or “the throng,” the mass migration of the caribou, an overwhelming sight that he remembered for the rest of his life.

“A flowing, brown river was surging out of the shrunken forest to the eastward, plunging through the drifts to pour across the track ahead of us. But this was no river of water – it was a river of life,” he told his biographer, James King. At the same time that he was seeing nature (including beluga whales) in all its furious glory, he was also snuffing it out by helping his uncle and Mr. Wilks collect eggs and kill nesting birds to take them south as museum specimens. At the time Farley did what he was told, but later he realized that “collecting expeditions such as ours were little more than high-grade plundering operations conducted in the hallowed name of Science.”

He absorbed another blow early in 1937 with the announcement that his father had been appointed Inspector of Public Libraries and the Mowats would be leaving Farley’s beloved west and returning to Ontario. “I was going to be deported from the one place I had ever really felt at home,” he said later, adding that he “became depressed” and “in classic teenage style, grew sullen and uncommunicative.”

The family settled into a house at 90 Lonsdale Rd. 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 fled back west to collect specimens in the summers. Two years later the Mowats moved north of the city to Richmond Hill and Farley attended yet another high school. That summer he and two friends trekked west to begin an ornithological survey of Saskatchewan, having first secured a contract with the ROM to buy any specimens they collected.

When Canada declared war on Germany on Sept. 2, 1939, Farley – 18 years of age and barely 5 feet 7 inches – longed to join the Royal Canadian Air Force as a pilot. Rejected twice for being underweight, he finally passed the Army medical at his father’s old regiment after he took the examining doctor’s advice and drank a lot of water before he stepped on the scales.

He joined the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, or the Hasty Pees as they were known, in February, 1941, as a second lieutenant. More than a year later he was shipped overseas for training in England, and finally sailed from Greenock, Scotland, in June, 1943, to join Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army in Sicily on Operation Husky. 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," Lt. 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.

Although he continued to serve his country, he became increasingly alienated from what he was seeing, doing and suffering at horrific battles such as Monte Cassino. In April, 1944, he wrote to his parents: “Any guy who goes home with any expectation of returning to the past is in for a hell of a shock. The ground we used to stand on was in fact a sandbar….” Suffering from what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he finished the war with the rank of captain, as a technical intelligence officer at Canadian Army Headquarters in Holland.

An inveterate collector, he began amassing war spoils after the Germans surrendered in May, 1945. With some pals, he formed what they jokingly called “Mowat’s Private Army” and acquired more than 900 tons of equipment, including tanks, two V-1 flying bombs – one of which was designed to carry a pilot for suicide missions – and a V-2 rocket which they painted blue and camouflaged as a one-man submarine. Captain Mowat managed to get all of this material – and himself – aboard the Dutch ship Blommersdyk bound for Montreal in November, 1945.

For the next five months he tried to persuade Ottawa bureaucrats to take his collection, either as weaponry, or as artifacts for a war museum. No dice. With the exception of the manned V-1, which is now in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, everything else was lost, damaged in storage or sold for scrap. Even further disheartened, he arranged to be discharged in April, 1946, determined to write his way out of his despair, but no words came.

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.”

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. She was often in conflict with local poachers, tourism officials and other scientists. Mr. Mowat, who rarely, if ever, wrote from any perspective other than his own, published Virunga: The Passion of Dian Fossey in 1987 because he felt an affinity with her and her passion to stop the slaughter of the gorillas. Besides, he had managed, although he would never reveal how, to acquire access to her private journals.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Mr. Mowat, who wrote as compulsively as some people exercise, began recycling themes and subjects. As he told James Adams of The Globe in 2008: “There is no other subject that I know better than my own life. ... An organism needs a function. As a good student of animality, I know if you don’t have that, you die. Writing is mine and as long as I can hit the keys and vaguely remember what word I need, I’ll go on with it.”

He returned to his military service in My Father’s Son (1992), to his childhood in Born Naked (1993) and, even more often, the Canadian Arctic in High Latitudes: An Arctic Journey (2002) and No Man’s River (2004). In Rescue the Earth: Conversations (1990), he expounded on his beliefs as an environmental advocate; in The Farfarers (2000), he delved again into pre-Columbian interactions between Europe and North America. In Bay of Spirits: A Love Story(2006), he returned to the early days of his marriage with Claire and their travels to St. Pierre and the southwest coast of Newfoundland in the early 1960s. And in Otherwise (2008) he went back again to the war years, his trips to the far North and his beginnings as an environmental activist. He dedicated Otherwise to Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Society because it is “the only organization honest enough to go out and actually fight for The Others.”

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 at 88. 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” he said in November, 2009.

“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 wireless Internet access in Canadian national parks.

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