Farley Mowat, a Canadian author, has realized great success throughout the world. His vast collection of published books and articles illustrate Canadian lifestyles, cultures, and environments, as seen through the eyes of an eccentric traveler. For adults, he writes books filled with underlying documentation ranging from the rapidly diminishing populations of both animals and natives in the north, to direct attacks on the Canadian federal government. For children, he writes tales of wonderful adventures filled with the curious and vital spirit of youth. These stories also find the barren arctic as the primary setting, but concentrate more on relationships and personal growth than politics. However, Mowat still incorporates a sense of realism in his works for children which provides the readers with a basic knowledge of the northern environment, its populations, and their habits and customs. It is this element of realism which has brought Farley Mowat under the magnifying glass, into a world of controversy and debate.
Mowat is best known for his portrayals of the arctic region of Keewatin, where he personally spent time with the natives and the animals in their barren habitat. The research and experiences Mowat accumulated during his arctic retreat [led] to his first novel, People of the Deer (1952), a story which depicts the horrible conditions of the natives and their dwindling food supplies as a direct result of the Canadian federal government’s inaction (Goddard 49). The region of Keewatin also [led] to further of Mowat’s most popular books such as The Desperate People (1959), and Never Cry Wolf (1963). These books continued the arsenal on the federal government’s inability to protect its natives, while beautifully depicting the natural environment of the north. For children, Mowat uses Keewatin as a setting for adventure in Lost in the Barrens (1956), and the sequel The Curse of the Viking Grave (1966). These books team up a young boy from Toronto and a half-native boy from Keewatin. Together, they roam the harsh northern regions of Manitoba, learning as they go. Mowat also uses the mid-western regions of Canada for Owls in the Family (1961), a story which incorporates Mowat’s own pet owls, Wol and Weeps, to illustrate life in the prairies. These books are based in real settings, which Mowat describes with a confident exactness. But the correctness of the descriptions and the evidence they are derived from have often been questioned by critics and scholars. When reading his books, one must remember the subjectivity with which Farley Mowat writes.
Farley Mowat’s books are designed to be entertaining. He writes with a notion that "using entertainment you can then inform, you can propagandize, you can elucidate, you can do anything you want", thus clearly his books are not purely factual (Goddard 48). For this reason, his books are as difficult to classify as he is to understand. His books fill the gap left somewhere between fact and fiction, a problem which has frustrated librarians to an endless extremem. When asked, Farley Mowat explains he writes "subjective non-fiction", a term which has brought him much criticism and forced him into a lifetime of explanation (Goddard 52). Reporters and interviewers have relentlessly interrogated Farley Mowat over the years in hopes of uncovering lies and discrepancies which would discredit Mowat and turn his reading audience away in distrust.
Farley Mowat has never denied the elements of elaboration and exaggeration which exist in his writing. On the contrary, he explains his objectives for writing and denounces any accusations that he invents facts. Mowat is driven by the motto "Never Let The Facts Interfere With The Truth", and admits that if the facts aren’t pleasing, he ignores them (The Farley Mowat Papers, 1). These commments appear in a preface written by Farley Mowat which accompanies his personal journals that were sold to McMaster University in 1974. Other such documents were made public at the National Archives (Goddard 48). These journals document Mowat’s actual experiences in the north, which are notably different from the experiences he details in his books. He expresses concerns in the preface that these facts will mislead researchers and will cause them to "lose the essential Mowat in the process" (The Farley Mowat Papers, 2). This is precisely what has happened. Reporters, such as John Goddard, used the papers to discredit Mowat to the public in an attempt to belittle one of Canada’s most famous authors.
To understand the discrepancies which exist between Farley Mowat’s life and the books he has written, one must first trace his history. Farley Mowat’s life is a far stretch from the ordinary lives of Southern Ontario natives. Perhaps Farley Mowat’s unusual life began at conception, because he claims he was conceived under the grandstand at the Canadian National Exhibition (The Farley Mowat Papers, 2).
Farley Mowat was born May 12, 1921 in Belleville, Ontario, to Angus and Helen Mowat. His first nine years were spent between Belleville and Trenton, according to where his father worked as a Librarian. In 1930, the Mowats moved to Windsor, where Angus was appointed as Chief Librarian of the City Librarian System. It was here that Farley began his interests in both nature and literature (About Farley Mowat, 258). He began writing poems, mostly about fellow students he disliked, which were very non-factual (The Farley Mowat Papers, 2). At this point he had several unusual pets, and became extremely interested in birds as the family frequently visited Point Pelee National Park (About Farley Mowat, 258).
In 1933, the Mowats moved to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where Angus was appointed the Chief Librarian for Saskatoon. In 1935, Farley became the youngest person to obtain their bird bander’s permit, and he spread his interests by forming a naturalists’ club which published its own magazine called Nature Lore. Farley also began contributing articles to the Saturday children’s insert in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix. Also in 1935, Farley had his first experience with "La Foule", the mass migration of the caribou, on a trip to Churchill, Manitoba, with his great-uncle who was a noted ornithologist (About Farley Mowat, 259).
In the Spring of 1937, the Mowats traveled to the Gatineau Hills, Quebec, for the summer. In the Fall, they moved to Toronto where Angus had been appointed Director of Libraries for Ontario. Farley continued to follow his interests by joining the Toronto Ornithological Field Group and contributing articles to its magazine, The Chat. Farley remained as a boarder in Richmond Hill when his parents moved to Elgin Mills, Ontario (About Farley Mowat, 259).
From 1939 until 1946, Farley Mowat spent his time training and serving with the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment. His regiment was sent to England, and then to the Italian fronts in Sicily. In 1944, they took part in the assault on the Hitler Line below Monte Cassino, and in Rome. During this period, Farley began composing rough drafts for The Dog Who Would’t Be, and sent articles to Maclean’s. In 1945, Farley left for Belgium with the rank of Captain where he remained until he was demobilized in May of 1946 (About Farley Mowat, 260).
Upon returning to Canada, Farley enrolled at the University of Toronto in an Arts program. His desire to become a professional biologist dwindled while his considerations for a writing career strengthened. However, Farley still planned to return to the arctic, and in the Spring of 1947 he took part in a two-man expedition to Nueltin Lake (About Farley Mowat, 261). The next two years became the most important, and the most controversial, for Farley Mowat’s career. These are th years that Farley bases his most popular books upon, although his true experiences, in relation to his writings, are rather questionable. His journals and his books begin to split drastically at this point, bringing to the surface the issue of false evidence in his novels.
Farley Mowat claims to have spent two years (1947-48) researching and exploring the central area of Keewatin. His books set in Keewatin detail interactions with the natives, and remark on their diminishing and starving populations. The books he wrote for young people also rely on the evidence he found during these two years. These books draw vivid pictures in the imaginations of the young readers, and upon completion a young person could feel acquainted with northern Canadian life. However, the documents mentioned early which reveal Mowat’s true explorations show little of the work he claims to have done. Of the two years, Mowat apparently only spent the summer months in Keewatin, and most of the time was spent in the more southern regions (Goddard 48). Both excursions to the Northwest Territories were well-planned in advance, and Mowat was sent to fulfill minor duties on both accounts.
For the first trip in 1947, Mowat was a junior partner to an American field scientist named Francis Harper. His duty was to collect specimens for six months in the southern Keewatin district. The two men were flown in, and stayed at a set of trappers cottages (Goddard 49). After only five weeks, Mowat took off in a canoe to Brochet, Manitoba, with some trappers to buy trapping supplies. Upon returning, Harper was furious with Mowat, and refused to let him board the return plane in December. So Mowat set off towards Hudson Bay with the trappers, and eventually found a ride to Churchill aboard a government plane (Goddard 49).
The next summer Mowat took his second field trip to the Keewatin area, this time as a federal-government employee. Again he was an assistant, this time to his friend Any Lawrie who had just obtained his Master’s degree in Biology. They were hired to gather information on the caribou and their migration habits. Mowat was also assigned to study the patterns of wolves in the area. However, Mowat’s research fell far short of the program’s expectations. A longing for his wife (whom he had just married the previous December) invaded much of his thoughts, and his work suffered the consequences (Goddard 50). Of the 400 hours Mowat intended to spend in den observations, only about 195 were logged. In August, Mowat took his first opportunity to return to Toronto to save his marriage, and didn’t return until September. His wife came with him (Goddard 54). From this point on Mowat concentrated more on efforts with his wife than his research. He was eventually fired because of insufficient investigation and the high cost to the Northwest Territories Administration (Goddard 54).
These actual reports totally contradict the tales found in Farley Mowat’s books. He never lived in Inuit camps, he never learned to communicate with wolves, and he constantly covered the fact that the federal government was taking action in these areas. His great stories of personal exploration are mostly fictional, yet are described as though they were factual. However, Mowat has reasoning behind his elaboration. He is an author, and an author creates. Therefore, he filled in the blanks when true evidence was unavailable or boring.
In creating his literature, Farley Mowat, like other great authors, formed a mental picture based on factual experience and evidence to write stories which grabbed the attention of audiences worldwide. His opinions and imagination play an equal role in his works, and only add to the presentation of the end product. Children crave the adventure lined in Mowat’s books. Although they may learn facts which may be distorted, they grasp a basic understanding of the environments described. These books are intended to stir the curiosity and excitement o fyoung readers. If they are truly interested, they will pursue further information themselves.
Mowat’s credit as an author should never be swayed by a magazine article which fails to elucidate more than Farley himself. The article bases its arguments on factual documents, but selectively chooses only the sections which attack Mowat, therefore it is equally as subjective as any of Mowat’s books. Perhaps Mowat overlooked some of the consequences of his writings, especially for children who learn from the books they read, but Mowat is a role model in the fact that he stood by his actions, and his approach for writing never changed. His intentions were modest, having never wanted to write the "Great Canadian Novel", or have his books preseted by professors for dissection (The Farley Mowat Papers, 3). His notion that "facts generally conceal more than they reveal" expresses an opinion that humans and their environment are more complicated than mere facts can explain (The Farley Mowat Papers, 1). Farley Mowat’s collection of works is unique, uncatagorizable, and completely entertaining. For these reasons Farley Mowat is a creditable and successful author.
Mowat, Farley. The Curse of the Viking Grave. "About the Author". McClelland and Stewart Limited: Toronto, 1966. 258 - 262.
Mowat, Farley. The Farley Mowat Papers in McMaster University Library. McMaster University Libarary News Vol 2 No. 6 Sept, 1974.
---. Born Naked. McClelland-Bantam: Toronto, 1994.
---. "The Demise and Remise of the Great Leviathan." Weekend Magazine. May 11, 1974.
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