Northern exposure

Farley Mowat may be a Canadian national treasure, but that hasn't stopped his critics from savaging his credibility.

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France has Napoleon, America has John Wayne, Canada has a way of making you stop reading mid-sentence. Head for the movie reviews if you
must, but make no mistake — the Great White North does have its heroes. Typically, though, there’s nothing intrinsically Canadian about them. In fact, their fame is usually the result of having shed that confining distinction. A truly Canadian celebrity is one who elicits the reaction, “I didn’t know X was Canadian.” Right. That’s why X went to a speech therapist.

Farley Mowat is different, and is a northern national icon. Mowat’s books — “People of the Deer” (1952), “Never
Cry Wolf” (1963) and “A Whale for the Killing” (1972), among many
others — tell stories of the wilderness, the animals and the people of a
hard, cold, sublimely beautiful land. It’s Canada as the world knows it
(when the world spares it a thought). But even aside from his
celebrations of terrible northern grandeur, Mowat has two other
attributes crucial to any quintessentially Canadian celebrity. First,
Mowat is openly suspicious of America. And second, Canadians are
suspicious of Mowat.

In a country that is definitely on the short end of a sibling
rivalry — the Frank Stallone of the Western world — a little resentment is
inevitable. Farley Mowat would be considered a Canadian national
treasure just for the frequent kicks he delivers to the American shin
and the official enmity he has earned in return. “We Canadians are
hardly more than house slaves of the American empire,” he wrote in the
1985 book “My Discovery of America.” “Of course, we are better off than
the field slaves of South America.”

That’s the book Mowat wrote after he was included on a U.S. government list of
undesirables and was subsequently refused entry into the States for a
lecture tour. You can hardly blame them — Mowat once claimed to have fired
his .22 at U.S. Strategic Air Command planes flying over his home in
Newfoundland. No surprise then that Mowat is prominently featured at a
Web site called Canadian World Domination HQ. (Of course, the CWD Web
site is only mock-belligerent. As a world threat, Canadian jingoism ranks right up there with Tibetan soccer hooliganism.)



To an extent Americans would never understand, a large part of the
Canadian identity involves arguing about whether or not we have one. A
recent contest to come up with a northern equivalent of the phrase
“As American as apple pie” produced the suggestion “As Canadian as
possible.” Hockey, curling, government health care, gun control,
kick-ass beer, eh, a few idiosyncratic pronunciations, the faint
vestiges of Peter Jennings’ accent — these are the paltry exhibits for the
defense. And the case against our distinct ethnic nationhood? Shania
Twain. There’s more, but why pile it on?

Faced with the disconcerting evidence of our indistinguishable
North-Americanness, Canadians turn in desperation to persistent
Yank-bashing. Mowat excels at this, and thus is much beloved.
Conversely — and this is crucial to understanding the Canadian psyche, but
pay attention anyway — Mowat’s credibility as a Yank-basher stems almost
entirely from the fact that he is successful in the States. According to
publisher Key Porter, his 36 books have sold over 14 million copies in
52 languages. Another source puts it at 24 languages — at any rate, one of
them is American. “Never Cry Wolf” was made into a Disney movie. Americans
like Mowat, muses the Canadian, therefore Mowat is.

Mowat’s status as a national hero is probably aided by the number of
Canadian towns that can lay claim to him. Born in Belleville, Ontario, on
May 12, 1921, Mowat bounced around the country with his librarian father
and kept the rambling habit as an adult. During World War II he fought
in Italy, later recounting the experience in “And No Birds Sang.” He
traveled to the Northwest Territories in 1947, beginning an association
with the far north that first bore fruit in “People of the Deer.” The book was
a tremendous success. In it, Mowat told of hitching a ride with a bush
pilot who dropped him in the middle of nowhere, then of being led by a trapper to an Inuit camp — the first white man to see it. Mowat
detailed Inuit life and the threat of starvation that resulted from
white encroachment on Inuit hunting grounds. A young person’s novel,
“Lost in the Barrens,” followed in 1956, and three years later “The
Desperate People” returned to the plight of the northern Inuit tribe. “Never Cry Wolf,” perhaps his best-known
book, described Mowat’s lengthy study of wolf behavior as he fought to
save the animals from human hostility and government-sponsored
extermination.

From the beginning Mowat established himself as both passionate advocate and master storyteller. The educational aspects of his works made them natural homework for resentful students, but this was nutritional cereal that tasted great, too — readers got first-hand accounts of life in the wild packed with scientific information, but also man-runs-naked-with-wolves adventure tales. Autobiographical stories of his youth, like “Owls in the Family” (1961) and “The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be” (1957), captured kids’ imaginations, while works like the 1984 “Sea of Slaughter” rallied them to environmental action once they had grown up. Eight years spent in Newfoundland led to several books centered on that most idiosyncratic of Canadian provinces, although Mowat and his wife, Claire, now divide their time between Ontario and Nova Scotia. Books as varied as “The Regiment” (1961) and “The Farfarers” (1998) have ranged over landscapes of earth, time and memory — stories of history both national and personal.

His northern tales mark Mowat as a distinctively Canadian writer. That
those early books are now mired in controversy deeper than spring trail
mud may be a different kind of Canadian marker — the kind of scar that
this country often inflicts on its most uppity citizens. An illustrative
joke: A man waiting to be seated at a seafood restaurant notices that
one of the lobster tanks has no lid. He alerts the mbitre d’ to a
possible escape in progress. “Ah,” says the mbitre d’, “don’t worry,
sir. Those are Canadian lobsters. If one of them starts to crawl out,
the others will just drag it back down.”

In Farley Mowat’s case, though, it’s hard to argue that the problem was
only Canada’s national brand of small-town envy. The scandal began with
the May 1996 issue of Saturday Night, one of Canada’s most prominent
national magazines. On the cover was a black-and-white photo of Mowat,
the northern sage, looking woodsy with his full beard and wool sweater.
Another woodsy touch was the Pinocchio nose, electronically added to
Mowat’s face by the waggish art department. It wasn’t a good sign. Seeing that
cover, Mowat must have felt something like the guy whose girlfriend has
just announced that she wants to tell him something — on the Jerry
Springer show. Sure enough, John Goddard’s heavily researched story, “A
Real Whopper,” made devastating accusations about Mowat’s first three
nonfiction books: “People of the Deer,” “The Desperate People” and “Never
Cry Wolf.”

Wrote Goddard: “Documents recently made public at the National Archives
of Canada, and papers that the author himself sold years ago to McMaster
University, show that Mowat did not spend two years in the Keewatin
District in 1947 and 1948 as the books say. He spent two summer field
seasons in the district — totaling less than six months — and mostly in a
more southern part of the district than he describes. He did not
casually drop in alone but traveled on both occasions as a junior member
of well-planned scientific expeditions. He did not once — contrary to the
impression he leaves — see a starving Inuit person. He did not once set
foot in an Inuit camp. As for the authenticity of his wolf story, he
virtually abandoned his wolf-den observations after less than four
weeks.”

The article reported that residents of the Northwest Territories often
refer to Farley Mowat by the derisive nickname “Hardly Know-it.” After
noting the claims of scrupulous authenticity Mowat made within the books
themselves, Goddard described a very different Mowat attitude displayed
in notes and conversation. “I never let the facts get in the way of the
truth,” Goddard claims Mowat told him. Goddard also came across Mowat’s
self-proclaimed motto in a catalog of the author’s papers: “On
occasions when the facts have particularly infuriated me, Fuck the
Facts!”

Ironically, the article confirmed Mowat’s preeminent status in Canada
by causing a national furor. Even political cartoonists weighed in — the
Edmonton Journal’s Malcolm Mayes depicted Mowat’s wife informing her
husband, “The wolf’s at the door, and he’s got a few questions.”

Mowat’s friends — including virtually the entire Canadian literary
establishment — rose to his defense and anxiously awaited the great man’s
rebuttal. It was swift and disappointing. Mowat gave interviews
describing Goddard’s article as “bullshit, pure and simple … this guy’s
got as many facts wrong as there are flies on a toad that’s roadkill.”
(On the other hand, he didn’t mind the rude cover trick. “You know what
they say about men with long noses,” he reasoned.)

In a widely published statement, Mowat excoriated Saturday Night as
another National Enquirer and savaged Goddard as a “hired gun” and
“despicable.” “His piece is stuffed with factual errors,” Mowat wrote.
“I don’t have the space here to catalogue his errors of omission and
commission … Even more to the point, he consistently misses the truth
behind the ‘facts.’”

Putting the word “facts” in quotation marks hardly inspired confidence.
Nor did his refusal to refute Goddard’s major claims. Tellingly, both
Mowat’s attackers and defenders quickly staked out the same
ground — namely, the author’s admitted reputation as a “teller of tales.”
Critics pointed out that similar accusations had been made before,
notably by Frank Banfield of the Canadian Wildlife Federation in a 1964
article published in the Canadian Field-Naturalist. Banfield compared
Mowat’s 1963 bestseller to another famous wolf tale: “Little Red Riding
Hood.” “I hope that readers of “Never Cry Wolf” will realize that both
stories have about the same factual content,” Banfield wrote.

Sure, sure, replied the FOFs (Friends of Farley). That’s the secret of
his charm. Wrote one correspondent to Saturday Night: “There is more
truth in one of his outrageous exaggerations than in a shelf-load of
pretentious twaddle.” A news story quoted naturalist and author Stuart
Houston: “Anyone who knows Farley knows that he has a difficult time
understanding where truth ends and his imagination begins … and we love
him for it.” Mowat must have been touched — it was the kind of stirring
endorsement that his heirs could use to dispute his will.

“The primary consideration for a writer is to entertain,” Goddard quotes
Mowat as saying. “Using entertainment you can then inform, you can
propagandize, you can elucidate … As far as I’m concerned ‘People of the
Deer’ did nothing but good for individual people, the survivors … Nobody
was going to pay any attention to them unless their situation was
dramatized, and I dramatized it.”

The pro-Mowat camp succeeded in pointing out that Goddard’s attack
overreached on some charges and inappropriately downplayed very real
problems the Inuit faced. But many of Goddard’s claims, among them that
Mowat demonized the federal government and significantly distorted the
official attitude toward both wolves and Inuit, went unanswered. More
fundamentally, Mowat’s reputation as a nonfiction writer was
compromised, perhaps permanently.

Permanently, like a life sentence for murder. Three years later, few
traces of the 1996 Saturday Night shootout are evident. Online reviews
and biographies rarely mention the controversy, which apparently went
largely unnoticed outside of Canada anyway. In the end, John Goddard
appears to have been Farley Mowat’s very own Gennifer Flowers. Charges
were made, much harrumphing ensued, the charges remained unchallenged
and no harm was done. Onward and upward for Slick Farley.

But some readers, particularly historians, will not forget so easily. The
University of Toronto’s Michael Bliss called the fudging “utterly
appalling,” while the University of Alberta’s Rod Macleod suggested that
those who lie for a good cause ultimately do that cause “more harm than
good.” But if the tempest has had any lasting effect for most Mowat
readers, it seems to have been this: They identified what they valued
about his writing and found themselves agreeing with the author’s
contention that, while they may fall short as history, his stories
survive as ripping yarns that serve a greater good. Hollywood’s
attraction to “Never Cry Wolf” now seems perfectly fitting — both Mowat and
Tinseltown value storytelling over strict accuracy.

(Harder to interpret is maverick Vancouver writer/filmmaker Ken Hegan’s short subject, “Farley Mowat Ate My Brother.” Adapted from a radio play, the
eight-minute flick tells of a Hegan frhre who, irked by having to write
boring book reports, leaves to lodge a personal complaint with the
famous author, then mysteriously disappears. The joking accusation of
cannibalism won Best Short at the New York Underground Film Festival in
1996, capping what was just a generally bad year for Mowat. Since
Hegan’s CBC-TV productions also include the short film “William Shatner
Lent Me His Hairpiece,” this work appears to be another example of the
aforementioned national tendency to savage our most cherished national
symbols.)

As for Farley Mowat the Canadian icon, today that role fits the man
better than ever. You powerful nations can go on and choose as your national
heroes any titans you want — conquerors, noble patriots, swaggering studs
whose names can serve as battle cries for bar fights or amphibious
landings. But every country reserves the right to select the figureheads
that represent it best. We’ve chosen Farley Mowat. Because, as you know,
we Canadians are not real sure what we’re all about.

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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