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Farley: The Life of Farley Mowat

by James King

The soundtrack to James King’s moving portrait of our own diminutive colossus, Farley Mowat, would have to be Neil Young’s “Old Man.” King identifies the key relationship in Mowat’s life as that with his difficult, charismatic father Angus. At moments in this literate biography, one can almost hear Neil in the background voicing the son’s tentative declarations of independence – “doesn’t mean that much to me to mean that much to you.” At others, there’s junior requesting approval on the basis of a not entirely comfortable similarity with his dad – “Old man, look at my life, I’m a lot like you were.” Seldom has a book more carefully charted the manchild’s simultaneous needs to distance himself from and bring himself closer to his begetter.

In chronicling the sometimes harsh, sometimes tender back and forth between these two men, King also parses a certain type of Canadian masculinity. As in King’s equally strong life of publisher Jack McClelland, we are here in the not always congenial, but seldom boring, company of the hard-drinking, canoe-tripping, kilt-lifting, tall-tale-telling homo Canadiens.

As a child, Farley was naturally shy and his father’s wanderlust ensured that the boy never stayed in one place long enough to make friends with other children. Instead, young Mowat became enamoured of animals, those he called The Others. A tireless watcher and explorer, Farley qualified as the youngest birdbander in Canada and kept a museum of his natural history finds in the family home. Eccentric himself, Angus encouraged his son’s nascent naturalism but was surprised when Farley’s sensitivity made him recoil from an early hunt with a manly uncle.

With his soldier father egging him on, Farley enlisted in the Second World War and had a “good war” – he was brave under fire during the Italian campaign, but that telltale queasiness always needed to be mastered. Unlike Angus, Farley could never rejoice in triumph achieved through bloodshed. Although he was not to write honestly about his army life until years later – significantly, he could only recount his struggles with what he considered his innate cowardice after his father’s death – something in the experience unleashed the artist in Mowat.

After the war Mowat retreated to the relatively pristine wilds and began to write passionately about The Others and those whose lives remained linked to the blessed animals, Canada’s first peoples. His genre-bending books (“subjective non-fiction,” he calls them) caused a sensation both in Canada and abroad and helped shape the modern-day environmental movement.

His first book, People of the Deer (1952), blamed the federal government for widespread starvation among a caribou-reliant native band. Never Cry Wolf, his imaginative 1963 portrait of a beleaguered pack, singlehandedly altered perception of, and policy regarding, the feared beasts worldwide. In the 1972 work A Whale for the Killing he spews disgust for the rustics who, with a thousand potshots, slowly slaughter a whale trapped in a cove. By King’s telling, Mowat’s hatred of bureaucracy and his view of modern humans as degraded, bloodthirsty types both emanated from the prolific author’s so-called good war.

But the urge to write also came from his father, who never found an outlet for his own considerable skills as a raconteur. Angus was the sort of driving parent who had the knack for communicating high expectations equally through scorching insult and middling praise, but his son nonetheless adored him. Their curious alliance became even curioser when Farley used Angus as an envoy to arrange his divorce and Angus had Farley help smooth Angus’s own departure from Farley’s mother’s bed. For a time, Farley was closer to his father’s mistress than his own mother, whom he and his father both called PDH for poor dear Helen. King conveys the Mowats’ often unusual domestic accommodations with admirable evenhandedness, neither sparing nor unduly censuring the needy, difficult men.

While often critical of Mowat the man, King’s view of Mowat’s artistry is more positive. King makes the case for Farley as a prophet who deserves to be honoured – not vilified as he has been of late – in his own country. Judiciously quoting from Mowat’s best work, King shows Mowat’s rare gift for transporting the reader into an alternate reality. He also squarely addresses the accusations of untruthfulness leveled against Mowat, concluding that departures from fact were fairly insignificant and in each case served a higher truth than the literal. He, like his subject, cannot understand why a man who always claimed to be writing “faction” should now be criticized for doing what he set out to do.

King has also managed to convey the ups and downs of the creative process, and the extraordinary contributions made to that process by Farley’s patient, insightful New York editor, Peter Davison. It’s easy for a biographer to make hay of the subject’s tumultuous personal life. King here manages to convey the wellspring of Mowat’s artistic inspiration and the process of its translation into published texts.

But in the end, Farley is a father and son chronicle. Although the pair possess many similiarities, the son’s differences eventually intrigue more than the chips he took off the old block. Whence this unusual sensitivity, whence this antipathy to activities, like hunting, that have traditionally been the preserve of men’s men? Although Mowat bluffly played the redblooded Canadian male throughout his life, King tells us of a quieter soul, the grown-up who never lost the wonder he experienced as a lonely boy wandering through boreal forests, observing, collecting, measuring, valuing.