Early Life and Career
The great grandnephew of Ontario Premier Sir Oliver Mowat and son of a veteran of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Farley Mowat has been writing since his pre-teens. He recalls composing "mostly verse" while living with his family in Windsor (1930–33) and then publishing a regular column based on his observations of birds in The Star-Phoenix after his family moved to Saskatoon. He studied at the University of Toronto; on a field trip as a student biologist he became outraged at the problems of the Inuit, all of which he attributed to white misunderstanding and exploitation. His observations led to his first book, People of the Deer (1952), which made him an instant, albeit controversial, celebrity.
A Focus on Autobiography
Mowat is considered a natural storyteller, but he is also a brilliant stylist. No matter what the context, his narratives and anecdotes are fast-paced and compelling, his tonegraceful, personal, and conversational. Commitments to ideals inspire verbal fireworks, while his enthusiasms evoke poetic descriptions and vivid images. Mowat’s antipathies produce ridicule, lampoons and at times, evangelical condemnation.
Many of his works are autobiographical: The Dog Who Wouldn't Be (1957) and Owls in the Family (1961) are comic recollections of his youth; The Regiment (1961) and And No Birds Sang (1979) deal with his experiences in the Second World War. Three books centre on his eight-year residency in Burgeo, Newfoundland: The Rock within the Sea (1968) presents his seafaring neighbours as heroic because they are uncorrupted by modern technology; The Boat Who Wouldn't Float (1969, Leacock Medal 1970) reflects his later disillusion; A Whale for the Killing (1972) transforms the wanton shooting of a trapped whale into a symbolic tragedy. The highly ironic My Discovery of America (1985) speculates on the reasons he was placed in the American "lookout book" for undesirables and refused entry into the US in 1985.
Farley Mowat's novels for young readers, including The Dog Who Wouldn't Be (1957) and Owls in the Family (1961), are classics of Canadian children's literature. Lost in the Barrens (1956) won the Governor General's Award and is a masterpiece that incorporates many of the themes central to his adult works. On the surface an adventure story, its structure is allegorical. Two youths — a Toronto-bred Caucasian and a Cree — are able to survive an arctic winter for a time by sharing their skills, but eventually their insufficient knowledge of the North nearly dooms them. They can be rescued only by an Inuit boy whose knowledge supplements their own.
From early on, there were questions about the veracity of Mowat’s accounts of his experiences in the North. A 1952 review in The Beaver magazine of People of the Deer, for instance, claimed that his observations were largely erroneous, later gaining him the derogatory nickname “Hardly Know-it.” In a blistering 1996 Saturday Night cover story titled “A Real Whopper,” journalist John Goddard compared Mowat’s original notebooks with his books, documenting the considerable and systematic discrepancies. Defenders of Mowat have pointed out that, while the exaggerations are real, his books almost single-handedly drew attention to the plight of the Inuit and serious environmental issues, bringing about substantive changes of policy in Ottawa. In a 1974 preface to personal papers deposited at McMaster University, Mowat provided his own defence. “Having eschewed the purely factual approach,” he wrote, “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.”
Mowat was a prolific and occasionally controversial author. Rescue the Earth: Conversations (1990) continues his advocacy on ecological issues. Two volumes of autobiography, My Father's Son (1992) and Born Naked (1993), provide intimate glimpses into family relationships and elaborate on his war experience. The Farfarers (1998) is another volume of speculative history. Mowat returned to his early Northern forays in High Latitudes: An Arctic Journey (2002), which relates his 1966 trek across Northern Canada, and No Man's River (2004), an account of his 1947 Arctic adventure. The film The Snow Walker (2003) is based on his short story "Walk Well My Brother."
In the 2000s, Mowat turned his pen to further memoirs: Bay of Spirits: a Love Story (2006) recounts his time in Newfoundland; Otherwise (2008) describes his childhood, wartime service and the travels to the North that forged his sense of purpose and inspired his literary career; and Eastern Passage (2010) recalls his life in the 1940s and 1950s, as he rose to fame as a writer and reshaped his life, moving from Ontario to a seagoing life in Newfoundland.
Farley Mowat was honoured in varying manners: he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1981. In 2002, The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society named their ship RV Farley Mowat to recognize his activism against the whaling industry. Farley Mowat Public School in Barrhaven, near Ottawa, opened in 2006. In 2012, Canadian publisher Douglas & McIntyre announced the Farley Mowat Library in which the author’s most popular titles were made available in new editions in both print and e-book form.