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Farley and me
Discovering the great Canadian writer

Credit:Nathaniel Gold

In grade school, I read every book I could get my hands on by a now-forgotten and probably forgettable science-fiction writer named Lester del Rey. In high school, I fell for John Steinbeck; in college, I turned to Twain and turned on to Kerouac.

These were authors whose work, I came to realize, was dependably excellent beyond the one or two titles for which they're best known. One book led to another and to another still. I wandered deep into their literary canons.

In recent years, I've been a big fan of Jon Krakauer and Michael Pollan - but each has written a mere four books. The latest writer I've become obsessed with whose body of work makes obsession a real commitment is Farley Mowat.

The "Who?" that usually follows mentions of this name is almost invariably answered with, "The guy who wrote Never Cry Wolf." Mowat's publishers are as guilty as anyone of this association, splashing mention of this 1963 tome, later a classic Disney film, on the covers of his other books. But Never Cry Wolf is only a wee piece of the Mowat oeuvre. One of Canada's most revered writers, Mowat has written 40 books over the last five and a half decades. His most recent was published in 2006; he turned 86 this spring.

A few years back, at the urging of a fellow animal lover, I read The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, Mowat's funny and heartwarming 1957 tribute to his childhood dog. It's one of my all-time favorite books, but somehow it didn't stir my curiosity about his other work. I just assumed its brilliance was a fluke.

Then, last fall, while looking for a used copy of The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, I picked up an old paperback of A Whale for the Killing, Mowat's chilling 1972 account of how a 80-ton fin whale trapped in a Newfoundland lagoon was executed by local yahoos who blasted it with rifle fire and ripped open its back with boat propellers. It's a tale filled with anguish and outrage, one that severed Mowat's ties to a place and people he and his wife Claire had come to love.

That set me on a Mowat binge. Every other book I've read over the last few months has been a Mowat. I've now finished nine Mowat titles, plus a 2002 biography written by James King. With each book I find his work and legacy richer and more compelling. He's had an amazing life, which he's deftly fashioned into enduring art.

The Farley Mowat book that most astounded and haunts me is the first one he published, back in 1952. People of the Deer tells the story of the Ihalmiut, a tribe of inland Eskimo living in one of the most inhospitable regions on earth - the Barrens of northern Canada, west of Hudson Bay.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the Ihalmiut numbered in the thousands, getting everything they needed from vast rivers of caribou making twice-yearly migrations. By the time Mowat visited, between 1946 and 1948, they were on the verge of extinction, due to overhunting and other changes wrought - sometimes callously, sometimes unwittingly - by Europeans.

Mowat learned the Ihalmiut's language and writes with nonjudgmental authority about their history, religion, mythology and culture. It's a portrait etched in sadness, for despite Mowat's appeals to his fellow Canadians it's pretty clear things will not turn out well for the tribe's remaining members. (I've yet to read his follow-up book, The Desperate People, published in 1959.)

Much of Mowat's writing has this in common - it opens up a window to worlds few people ever get to see. That's what fascinated me about The Siberians, Mowat's 1970 book about his travels, as a celebrated author, to the Soviet north country. King, his biographer, dismisses this as a minor work. But it mines the richness, complexity and (oddly enough) progressivism of a part of the world about which people often have cartoonish impressions, if they think about it at all.

Never Cry Wolf, in a similar vein, confronts the ignorance that underlies humankind's murderous impulses toward wolves. You come away from this book, as with People of the Deer and The Siberians, with fresh understanding and full admiration for its subjects.

Same too with The Snow Walker, Mowat's collection of short stories about northern peoples. One tale - about a pilot saved by the ingenuity of a young Inuit woman he initially regarded with casual disrespect - became a fine 2003 film of the same name. The longest story is a true account of an infamous murder trial, its point being that white society is ill-equipped to pass judgment on native peoples whose culture it has thrown into upheaval.

If all this suggests a heaviness of purpose, you're getting the wrong impression. Mowat is as witty and self-deprecating as he is insightful and perceptive. In Born Naked, he tells of his disastrously successful teenage dalliance with making explosives: "It did not seem impossible to me that Mr. Nobel might soon have to look to his laurels."

And here's a scene from Never Cry Wolf, recording the consummation of passion between a pair of wolves Mowat has been observing: "...[A]s he stretched out his great nose to offer his first caress she spun him about and nipped him coyly on the shoulder.

"My notes on the rest of this incident are fully detailed but I fear they are too technical and full of scientific terminology to deserve a place in this book."

In much of his best writing, Mowat draws from his own life experience

His 1994 book, Born Naked, worth buying just for its title and cover photo of young Farley with a critter, is a memoir of an idyllic childhood. It recounts his years spent on the Saskatchewan prairies, pursuing what Mowat came to call the Others - creatures great and small. These included Mutt, the hero of The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, who climbed trees and ladders, wore goggles on road trips, and spit pits from cherries; and his two pet owls, Wol and Weeps, the stars of Owls in the Family.

There is something touching and sad about how Mowat views his childhood as the best years of his life. The line that ends The Dog Who Wouldn't Be - I won't quote it all - about heading "into the darkening tunnel of the years," is among the most moving I've ever read. It made me feel the same as when I grasped the meaning of "Rosebud" at the end of Citizen Kane, for similar reasons.

What's striking about Mowat's autobiographical writing is its candor. He acknowledges his father's infidelities (he has a whole book on his dad, 1993's My Father's Son, high on my must-read list) as casually as he relates how, at age 12, a neighborhood lad "introduced me to bestiality, onanism and homosexuality all in one fell swoop by first masturbating his dog, then himself, and finally me."

The Mowat book I found hardest to read is one that he, according to King, struggled mightily to write. And No Birds Sang is Mowat's 1979 account of his experiences in Sicily and Italy during World War II. It's as jam-packed with battles as any John Wayne film, and Mowat and his fellow Canadians were undeniably heroic, outfighting and outwitting seasoned German troops.

But Mowat bleeds war of any semblance of glory, leaving only its searing intensity and senselessness. The most shocking atrocity he describes - fittingly enough, given his lifelong affinity for the Others - is that of a German sniper shattering the legs of a donkey, one by one, with rifle fire, for chuckles.

In the thick of his war experience, Mowat writes a letter home, a cry of pain that the passage of six decades has done nothing to mitigate:

"I could try to tell you how I really feel deep down inside, but that wouldn't do either of us any ruddy good. The damnable truth is we are in really different worlds, on totally different planes, and I don't know you anymore. I only know the you that was. I wish I could explain the desperate sense of isolation, of not belonging to my own past, of being adrift in some kind of alien space. It is one of the toughest things we have to bear - that and the primal, gut-rotting worm of fear."

Mowat's latest book, released to critical acclaim last year, is Bay of Spirits: A Love Story. It details his travels along the rugged coast of Newfoundland in a boat named "Happy Adventure."

In 1957, on the tiny island of St. Pierre, Mowat met and fell head over heels for Claire Wheeler, a 27-year-old Toronto artist. Together they explored places and ways of life that, like much of what has drawn Mowat's attention, teetered on the edge of unsustainability.

The same might be said for his relationship with Claire, which was complicated by the fact that Mowat was, at the time, married to someone else, with two small children. But their relationship would survive this, as well as Mowat's own eventual infidelity and emotional distance, as King relates. Claire and Farley remain together, splitting their time between Port Hope, Ontario, and a farm in Nova Scotia.

Bay of Spirits may be Mowat's best book. It is one of several he's written about Newfoundland, and his descriptive powers and narrative skill have never been stronger. Here's a taste:

"At dusk we cleared for home with one of the lads at the wheel while Skipper Alf and I repaired to the forepeak for a noggin of my rum and a feed of his dried capelin toasted on the hot stove top. Afterwards all four of us crowded into the small wheelhouse where the skipper played his accordion. We sang Newfoundland songs and old sea shanties while our wake spread astern like phosphorescent milk spilled from the rising moon."

Maybe it's strange that Mowat's writing has such a hold on me. My childhood was nothing like his, yet I feel a connection. I never went to war or sea or lived among native peoples, yet he makes these experiences real to me. I share his love of nature and the world of the Others. These are things I've had to seek out, as did he. And among the places I've found them is between the covers of a few good books.

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