The Life of Farley Mowat


Steer Forth Press, 2003
ISBN: 1-58642-055-0
A few years ago, I had a sign on the wall over my desk with a quote that a friend had passed on to me. Surrounded by a walnut frame, it read, in large, antique letters, "If the truth gets in the way of a good story, f--- the truth." I never found out when it was said or on what occasion, but my friend attributed it to Canadian writer Farley Mowat. There was something very appealing about this writer's attitude. While we may not admire the arrogance of this statement, we all wish we could be so confident in our own views of the world.
         I don't have that sign over my desk anymore. I have since acquired a new desk and new walls, which I own and would rather not decorate with four letter words. Nevertheless, this quote still sums up the attributes for which Farley Mowat has been both admired and criticized. Most of his books are ostensibly nonfiction. But while they have firm basis in personal experience and reflect the author's beliefs, they are often not factually accurate.
         The argument over whether a serious regard for facts is an important attribute for a writer is one of the issues taken up by author James King in his new biography of Mowat, Farley: The Life Of Farley Mowat.
        Born in 1921 in Belleville, Ontario, Farley Mowat is one of the most widely read Canadian writers of our time. With such books as Never Cry Wolf, People of the Deer, A Whale for the Killing, And No Birds Sang and many others, Mowat has established a reputation as a storyteller, a historian, an environmental activist, a staunch Canadian nationalist, an advocate for indigenous peoples and a colorful character in his own right.
        For readers familiar with Mowat's work, Mr. King's biography can provide a new view of the books, despite the fact that there is comparatively little discussion of the books themselves. But given that most of Mowat's books are autobiographical, learning about Mowat's life is itself an illumination of his work.
        Consider, for instance, Never Cry Wolf , Mowat's classic tale of his time spent in the Arctic studying wolf behavior. One could come away from that book with the impression that the author is a scientist who writes about his experiences. But Mr. King's book makes it clear that Mowat is, first and foremost, a writer and that much of his early life was directed toward becoming a writer. While he participated in expeditions to the Arctic to further scientific knowledge, he was not primarily a scientist.
       Mowat has often come under harsh criticism for changing the essential facts of his books even as they are touted as nonfiction. But Mr. King defends Mowat by emphasizing his passion for a more universal truth that outweighs the need to be factually accurate. In the case of Never Cry Wolf, King cites writer Thomas Dunlap, who saw the book as a fable in which a man is disconnected from the world around him by his scientific training only to have his eyes opened by actually becoming a part of that world again.
        James King continues this argument later in the book by suggesting that Mowat's Sibir (published in the U.S. as The Siberians) is one of his weakest books. In Mr. King's view, this book is not as strong as it could have been precisely because the author was more concerned with presenting a factual account of his journey through Siberia and than with the larger meaning of the journey.
       This is not to say, however, that the facts of Mowat's life are stale and tedious. Mr. King presents Mowat's life as a story in itself, complete with compelling characters such as "the marsh boy," a boyhood friend of Mowat's who lived a virtually wild life in the woods near the family's home. Likewise, Mowat's relationship with his father, a stern, demanding man whose approval he sought throughout his life, is the stuff of classic drama.
        But it seems at times that the biographer gives little attention to some important aspects of Mowat's life. His experiences in World War II, for instance, are only briefly discussed, even though Mowat himself has said that his wartime experience shaped his view of humanity.
        Mr. King tells a fascinating story of a writer who is as compelling a character as any he writes about and places his work in the context of his life. In the end, we are left with the portrait of a man with many flaws but with also with many gifts--a man who never lets smaller truths get in the way of larger ones.