Our Own Ancient Mariner

As he turns 90, Farley Mowat may be the country’s most influential writer ever.

A bearded Canadian arrived at the international airport in Toronto, ready to embark on a ten-day working trip to California. He cleared customs. But then, while he waited in the departure lounge, he was approached by a man in uniform. This gentleman introduced himself as belonging to the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the United States of America. And he asked the Canadian to please come with him.

The INS officer led the way to a windowless cubicle. He sat down behind a desk and motioned his guest into the chair opposite: “Have you ever been turned back at the American border?”

“Never.”

“Have you ever entered or attempted to enter the United States illegally?”

“Of course not.”

“Do you have a criminal record?”

“Certainly not.”

“Is there a security file on you in the USA?”

“How would I know that? What’s this all about? You already passed me through—remember?”

“I need further identification.”

The Canadian felt almost relieved. Clearly, the INS had confused him with someone else. He produced his passport with a flourish. The officer flipped it open, glanced at the photo, looked up at its real-life subject. Then he then stood up and, without a word, strode out the door with the passport.

“Excuse me,” the Canadian said. “Should I wait here or in the departure lounge?”

Without looking back, the man said, “Wait there.”

The Canadian sat in the cubicle racking his brain. He had visited the U.S. many times before. What were they worried about? There must be some mistake.

But after 15 minutes, when the INS man had not returned, the Canadian began to worry that he would miss his flight. He poked his head out into the hall. At last he saw the uniformed man approaching. He wore a faint smile. The Canadian thought this looked promising. He would still be able to make his flight. He grinned at the American and held out his hand for his passport. But the man shook his head: “You are prohibited from entering the United States.”

“I’m what?”

“You are not permitted to enter the United States of America.”

“Not permitted to enter? Why not?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“You mean you know, but you won’t tell me?”

When did all this happen? Most readers, if not alerted by a headline, would certainly guess some time in the past decade. But no. This scenario unfolded on Tuesday, April 23, 1985—more than 25 years ago. And the threatening subversive identified by the INS man was not an immigrant Muslim carrying a pilot’s licence but a kilt-swirling environmentalist of Scottish descent who had already published 27 books and sold more than ten million copies of them around the world.

In My Discovery of America (1985), his 28th book, Farley Mowat would demonstrate that his repudiation by the INS was farcically ill-founded. But he would add that, ironically, the experience gave him a new faith in the United States. That was because so many Americans supported his complaint, rejecting the “bullying, arrogant, astonishingly insensitive” posturing of their political, commercial and military leaders and their “authoritarian, undemocratic, and frequently underhanded procedures.”

Mowat has never been one to pull his punches. But for this writer, here is what most amazes: at 63 years of age, just one month shy of 64, Farley Mowat could be judged so dangerous and subversive that he could frighten America’s security experts into barring him from their country.

Here at home, few people realize just how influential Mowat has been internationally. Fewer still are aware that, among writers of his generation (born in the 1920s), Farley Mowat is a towering giant, at once a crusading environmentalist and a trailblazing literary craftsman. Canadians hear that Mowat has published 44 books and think, well, that’s impressive—but didn’t the late Pierre Berton publish 50?

Indeed, Berton did so—and hats off to that mighty accomplishment. Yet the swashbuckling Berton (1920–2004), like the youngster Peter C. Newman (born 1929), found precious few readers beyond Canada’s borders. The controversial Mowat, on the other hand, has always commanded a massive international audience. Published in 25 countries, he has sold (best estimate) almost 20 million copies of his 44 books. Twenty million copies! A champion of the natural world who never followed but always led, and who has consistently taken cutting-edge positions, Mowat is arguably the most influential Canadian writer of all time.

Farley Mowat is descended from fighting Scots on both sides. His mother’s family arrived in Canada in 1795. One of her ancestors, Alexander Grant, served as a Royal Navy officer in the Seven Years War and later became administrator of Upper Canada. On his paternal side, the first Mowat to arrive in these parts fought in the War of 1812 and settled in Kingston. He fathered Oliver Mowat, who eventually became premier of Ontario and great-great-uncle of Farley.

The author’s father, Angus Mowat, fought in the First World War, survived the battle of Vimy Ridge and subsequently became a strong-minded librarian with an adventurous streak. He introduced young Farley—born May 12, 1921, in Belleville, Ontario—to sailing on Lake Ontario. Then, during the Great Depression, he moved the family to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

There, young Farley fell in love with the natural world. A lonely boy who was small for his age, he discovered gophers, meadowlarks and ponds alive with ducks and shorebirds. He also had a way with words, and in his mid teens he began writing a column about birds for Saskatoon’s StarPhoenix.

Later, in The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be (1957), Mowat would describe how he rambled around the Prairies with his dog Mutt. At home, he kept a rattlesnake, a squirrel, two owls, an alligator, several cats and hundreds, if not thousands, of pet insects. At school, he set up the Beaver Club of Amateur Naturalists. And by 15, when he travelled to the Arctic with a great-uncle who was an amateur birder, he had discovered his vocation as a naturalist.

In 1939, when the Second World War erupted, the 18-year-old Mowat was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He saw action during the allied invasion of Sicily, where he served as a platoon commander. He then worked as an intelligence officer in Italy and the Netherlands, and in 1945, when the war ended, he emerged as a captain. Later, he would write about narrowly surviving these horrible years, most memorably in And No Birds Sang (1979).

After the war, while studying biology at the University of Toronto, Mowat took a field trip to the Canadian Arctic. In 1947, he encountered a band of 40 Inuit, the Ihalmiut, whose way of life was being destroyed by the arrival of the white man. An outraged Mowat, who had started publishing magazine articles, told their story in People of the Deer. When it appeared in 1952, that book shamed the Canadian government into shipping food to people whose existence it had previously denied. It also launched a spectacular literary career.

Over the next couple of decades, Mowat would publish bestselling works in a variety of genres. He produced children’s books such as Lost in the Barrens (1956) and The Curse of the Viking Grave (1966). He wrote memoirs—both serious (The Regiment, 1955) and lighthearted (The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, 1957, and Owls in the Family, 1961). But Mowat would make his international reputation as a champion of the natural world, starting in 1963 with Never Cry Wolf.

In that work, Mowat described how, having travelled to the Arctic to study declining caribou herds, he set up an observation camp. And he argued that, contrary to popular opinion, wolves were actually strengthening caribou herds by killing off the weakest animals. For the decreasing size of those herds, he blamed human trappers. This passionate book became an international sensation and influenced the Soviet Union to ban the killing of wolves.

Mowat would produce more bestsellers in this conservationist mode. These books include A Whale for the Killing (1972), which depicted the shooting of a doomed whale; Sea of Slaughter (1984), a jeremiad attacking “the destruction of animal life in the north Atlantic”; and Virunga: The Passion of Dian Fossey (1987), which tells the story of the anthropologist who studied and championed gorillas and was brutally murdered for her pains.

Introducing his classic Sea of Slaughter, which he was heading south to promote in 1985 when he hit that trouble at the American border, Mowat wrote that some early readers found the stories in the book “so appalling that they wondered why I had committed myself to five years in such a pit of horrors.” He described the book as recording “what we have accomplished in one special region during 500 years of tenure as the most lethal animal ever to have appeared upon this wasting planet.”

And he expressed the hope that “with luck, this record of our outrageous behaviour in and around the Sea of Slaughter … will help to change our attitudes and modify our future activities so that we do not become the ultimate destroyers of the living world … of which we are a part.”

In 1996, when he was 75 years old, Farley Mowat faced an extraordinary assault on his reputation. The now defunct Saturday Night magazine published a cover article by John Goddard slamming the author for stretching the facts in books he had published more than 30 and 40 years before: People of the Deer (1952) and Never Cry Wolf (1963). Most notably, the article—heralded by a cover portrait depicting Mowat as Pinocchio—charged that the author had spent less time in the Arctic than he claimed.

In Farley: The Life of Farley Mowat, biographer James King mounts a sturdy defence. He notes that journalist Robert Everett-Green, who admitted that “Mowat’s sense of drama did routinely win out over his respect for the literal truth,” also insisted that the author “did more to raise awareness about the North than anyone, and more to convince people that a debate was necessary.”

Mowat himself produced the most cogent rebuttal—but he did so 22 years before the Saturday Night article appeared. In 1974, in a preface to personal papers he deposited at McMaster University, Mowat wrote: “Having early eschewed the purely factual approach, I was not willing to go to the other extreme and take the easy way out by writing fiction. My métier lay somewhere in between what was then a grey void between fact and fiction.”

For many years, he writes, cataloguers could not decide where to place his work: “On the other hand reviewers and critics, who were enraged that I should dare to sail the middle ground between fact and fiction, knew where my work belonged, or thought they did, and were not hesitant about saying so. The truth was, of course, that I was simply ahead of my time.”

And so he was. Mowat credited Truman Capote—who had published his ground-breaking “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood in 1965—with having brought respectability to what today is best known as creative non-fiction. As early as 1952, Mowat had done what Capote later did: he fashioned a real-life narrative using narrative techniques associated mainly with fiction—for example, incorporating scenes and dialogue.

No question, Mowat exaggerated the “truth” of his experience beyond what today would be regarded as acceptable limits. But he was writing 50 and 60 years ago, before prevailing conventions had been established. And this is where Mowat’s situation differs profoundly from that of James Frey, who was lambasted for lying in A Million Little Pieces. Frey published that false memoir in 2003. By then, writers and critics had hammered out the conventions of creative non-fiction, including that of the implied contract with the reader. Frey understood those conventions, or should have, and was rightly castigated.

Back in the 1950s and early ’60s, however, when Mowat ventured into “subjective non-fiction” territory, this discussion had yet to take place. To criticize him for transgressing borders that had yet to be drawn is manifestly unfair. Farley Mowat was ahead of his time.

Last year Mowat published his final book, Eastern Passage. At 89 years of age, the old fighter was still raging. He made a compelling case that a dramatic drop in the beluga whale population in the St. Lawrence River was the result of an accident involving a nuclear bomb.

In the summer of 1954, Mowat was sailing down the St. Lawrence River, making an “Eastern Passage” from Montreal to Halifax. A deckhand “spotted a large, corpse-white something just beneath the surface directly in our path,” he writes. Mowat swung the tiller hard and avoided a collision, but recognized the semi-submerged object as a six-metre beluga whale, clearly sick or injured.

Further east, from an old sailor, he learned of a horrific explosion that had occurred in these waters four years before—the result, apparently, of an American plane having jettisoned several bombs. Almost half a century passed, Mowat writes, before he pieced together the whole story.

An American bomber had run into engine trouble while transporting a version of “Fat Man,” the nuclear bomb that in 1945 had obliterated the Japanese city of Nagasaki. The pilot, acting on standing orders, released the bomb into the St. Lawrence before attempting an emergency landing. The official version claimed an empty “Fat-Man casing” and three conventional bombs were released, but admitted that the blast “was felt for 25 miles.”

Mowat flashes forward to a 1988 New York Times article. It described how, since 1950, “a mysterious die-off of beluga whales” in the St. Lawrence had shrunk the colony from 1,200 to 450. It noted also that the area “has Canada’s highest level of human birth defects, although no direct cause-effect relationship has been shown.”

As always, Mowat makes clear his opinions. Yet in this final memoir, he also reminisces fondly, evoking the post-war years when he sought to gain traction as a young writer while struggling through a failing first marriage. With Eastern Passage, rich in vivid anecdote, Farley Mowat caps a magnificent 44-book legacy. To this singular Canadian writer we owe an extraordinary debt.