Farley Mowat – nature lover, gadfly, and author of the Canadian classics Never Cry Wolf and Lost in the Barrens – has died at the age of 92.
The iconic Canadian author of novels, memoirs, non-fiction books, and books for children, was born in Belleville, Ontario, in 1921 (his father claimed he was conceived in a canoe). He enlisted in the army during the Second World War and was sent overseas, where he fought in the bloody and extended Italian campaign that cost many Canadian soldiers their lives. According to Sandra Martin’s obituary in The Globe and Mail, it was in Ortona that Mowat started drafting the manuscripts that would become the canonical children’s tales The Dog That Wouldn’t Be and Owls in the Family.
Mowat’s wartime experience inculcated in him a dislike for human violence and wantonness and a belief that the animal kingdom was superior to humankind. Martin quotes a 2005 Globe interview in which Mowat comments, “I didn’t like the human goddamn race…. 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.” In a 2008 cover article for Q&Q, Mowat said, “Now take your top predator species. There’s drama! Drama all the time. Nothing but drama. Look what turmoil they cause.”
Mowat won a 1956 Governor General’s Literary Award for his children’s novel Lost in the Barrens. He was invested into the Order of Canada in 1981, and in 2010 he was awarded a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.
Beloved for his children’s writing and his passion for environmental causes, Mowat’s career was not without controversy. Particularly damaging to the author’s reputation was a 1996 cover article in Saturday Night magazine that claimed Mowat had exaggerated or outright falsified facts and other information in his first book, People of the Deer, set among the Inuit of the Arctic. The author of the article, John Goddard, also claimed infelicities in The Desperate People, the sequel to People of the Deer, and Mowat’s classic memoir, Never Cry Wolf. Years before James Frey was excoriated on Oprah’s couch, Mowat found himself forced to defend his approach to what is now known as “creative non-fiction,” saying he preferred truth to facts and that he wrote in a grey area between the two.
Perhaps Mowat’s most memorable defence of his practice occurred onstage at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors in 1999. When interviewer Peter Gzowski asked about his fidelity to facts in his writing, Mowat exploded, “FUCK the facts!”
Of his own writing, Mowat was self-effacing. “I’m a simple man,” he told Q&Q in 2008. “I loathe all talk of ‘artistry’ in writing. Literary fiction delves into character and motivation, but I never get into the heads of my characters. I don’t know how. Hell, I don’t even understand myself, never mind anyone else. And if someone tells you writing is easy, he is either lying or I hate him.”
Mowat would have turned 93 on May 12.