Farley (The Life of Farley Mowat)

Fall 2002 CSANews Issue 44  |  Posted date : Apr 09, 2007.Back to list

Farley Mowat is a genuine Canadian icon. His very life is an ongoing creative work in progress. In his 38 books, Farley has already revealed so much about himself that you would wonder how biographer James King could possibly discover anything new; however, King has succeeded brilliantly in portraying the "real" Farley. He's managed to bring the public and private together.

This is an "authorized" biography, which means that Farley co-operated by not only confiding in King, but by making available to him all his embargoed private papers and letters.

In this age of ephemeral communication ­ e-mail, faxes etc. ­ the art of letter-writing is becoming a thing of the past. Biographer King has been very fortunate in being able to make effective use of letters written and received by Mowat. Excerpts of letters to and from parents, editors, publishers and wives reveal a complex, often troubled, but always articulate man. They reveal intimate details of an artist living a nomadic, chaotic personal life while presenting a carefree "kilt-wearing, swaggering, mooning, drinking" façade to his readers.

Farley's nomadic, restless lifestyle started in early childhood. During the Great Depression, Farley's father, Angus Mowat, a librarian (and unsuccessful writer) moved his little family from eastern Ontario to Windsor, then to Saskatchewan and back to Ontario.

Small and precocious, Farley was a loner and avid naturalist from an early age.

Mowat was an only child, so his upright, long-suffering mother devoted her loving support to her little son. Farley, however, was more influenced both professionally and personally by his flamboyant, constantly unfaithful father. Angus did not give him non-judgmental love, but constantly damned him with faint praise.

As Farley grew up, he and Angus became more like brothers than like father and son. Farley even supported his father when Angus left his mother for a much younger woman.

King really gets into some unsavory details of Farley's personal life; his unrequited infatuation with journalist June Callwood, the Mexican divorce from first wife Fran and the quickie Texas marriage to make legal his liaison with his beloved Claire. Later, fleeting infidelities are alluded to, but not dealt with in any detail.

All this salacious gossip has the ironic effect of ensuring that the reader can be confident that "Farley" is truly a "warts and all" biography. King even addresses Farley's battle with the bottle (especially when suffering writer's block).

Angus Mowat was a rebel against the distinguished United Empire Loyalist class into which he had been born. He passed this rebellion on to his son, along with the highest of expectations for Farley's future.

It seemed almost preordained that young Farley (who enlisted at 19) should shoot up to the rank of captain in the Canadian Army. Mowat's charisma and leadership abilities were, however, always tinged with a healthy contempt for authority, especially the authority of British officers. "Only the Canadian forces are treated like inmates of a reform school," was one of the blunt observations in a letter. Mowat's exploits with the Dutch Underground and the larcenous shenanigans of "Mowat's Private Army" could have been scripted by the authors of "M*A*S*H*."

The letters for the Italian campaign are among the most poignant in the book. Years later, they resulted in Farley's acclaimed "And No Birds Sang."

The barren lands of the Canadian north had been Farley's spiritual home since childhood, and it was there that he fled to heal the psychic torments of war. His account of the hardships and injustices suffered by the Inuit became a huge best-seller, and "People of the Deer" turned Mowat into an instant and controversial celebrity.

King skilfully takes us behind the scenes and provides insight into the creative-writing process. The actual working life of an author. We meet the family of wolves (George and Angeline) who inspired "Never Cry Wolf," and "Mutt, The Dog Who Wouldn't Be."

I was particularly intrigued with Mowat's relationship with his publisher, Jack McClelland; their colourfully profane correspondence and their co-ownership adventures with "The Boat Who Wouldn't Float."

Jack had the ability to tap into Farley's insecurities to fuel a competition with popular historian Pierre Berton. The Berton-Mowat relationship blew hot and cold for years. In one letter, Farley is referring to Pierre as "an arrogant SOB," then they are conspiring to charge a Coles Book store to commandeer the American editions of their books and get arrested together. Our Canadian literary icons are not dull!!

Editor Peter Davison was another great influence in Farley Mowat's writing career. He also provided moral support for Farley in the perennial critical carping about the factual accuracy of Mowat's stories. According to Davison, "the strength of Farley Mowat, the writer, resides in his ability to interpolate fact with fiction...to reveal a deeper meaning."

Through the years, Farley himself had always declared candidly, "that he had never allowed the facts to get in the way of telling the truth."

In this compelling biography, James King reminds Canadians that Farley Mowat should be celebrated as the writer who passionately raised awareness about all creatures great and small who live in our Canadian north.

At 82, Farley is still writing and still concerned ­ so Bureaucrats Beware!

Farley is a best-seller and it deserves to be.