Farley Mowat. He began writing upon his return from serving in World War II, and has since written 44 books. He spent much of his youth in Saskatoon, and has lived in Ontario, Cape Breton and Newfoundland, while travelling frequently to Canada's far north. Throughout, Mowat has remained a determined environmentalist, despairing at the ceaseless work of human cruelty. Yet his ability to capture the tragic comedy of human life on earth has made him a national treasure in Canada, and a beloved storyteller to readers around the world.
He was 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.
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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 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.
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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 s. 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 , 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 He used the same material about survival in a young-adult novel, Lost in the Barrens , 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.
He revisited the Ihalmiut in The Desperate People , a "completely factual" account published in 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.
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, , complete with a photographically altered cover image of the author — his nose attenuated like Pinocchio's when he told a fib.
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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 memoir Never Cry Wolf. To condemn Mr. Mowat as merely a fabricator is simplistic. Substantial good did come of his "dramatizing.
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, , in Belleville, Ont. His father, the librarian Angus Mowat, enjoyed boasting that his only son was conceived in a green canoe on the Bay of Quinte.
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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 s that he lived, often in straitened conditions, in four different towns before he turned In January, , 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 was a turning point in Farley's life as a nascent naturalist.
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In June, his great uncle, the ornithologist Frank Farley, arrived from his homestead in Camrose, Alta. The two men scooped up Farley and took him to Churchill, Man. 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 , 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, , 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. 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.
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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.
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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, , and he had finished the war with the rank of captain. Only one item of the more than 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, Although a fitful student, he achieved good marks at university and met Frances Elizabeth Thornhill, the woman who became his first wife on Dec. 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 s, about the time that he began researching and writing Westviking and Curse of the Viking Grave , Mr.