Thursday, August 03, 2006

BOOKS: Is Farley Mowat Still Relevant?

I just read that a school in the Barrhaven area of Ottawa is being named after Canadian author Farley Mowat, and it reminded me of how much I used to love Mowat's writing in my teens, and how, tragically, he has since fallen off my radar.

A biologist turned raconteur, Mowat, now 85, has written some of the seminal books of contemporary Canadian literature, but I wonder how many people still consider him relevant. Perhaps all you schoolteachers and librarians can tell me: Are Mowat's books still being introduced to students? Because if they're not, they should be.

A wonderful hallmark of Mowat's writing is its eminent readability and accessibility, no small feat given the fact that he often writes about issues of ecology (Never Cry Wolf and Sea of Slaughter). On the flip side, he's also written charming, hilarious, touching books about the childhood pets that fuelled his love of nature (The Dog Who Wouldn't Be and Owls in the Family). I devoured these stories as a kid, as well as his more, er, ribald tales, including his drunken adventures sailing a boat from the Atlantic Ocean down the St. Lawrence River (The Boat Who Wouldn't Float).

Of all Mowat's books that I've read, my favourite is
Virunga: The Passion of Dian Fossey, his biography of mountain gorilla researcher Dian Fossey, who was one of my heroes when I was a teenager. He paints a portrait of a sensitive, shy person who was also incredibly passionate about her work to save the mountain gorillas she lived amongst in the Virunga mountain range. Fossey was also capable of racist and violent behaviour toward the local people whom she found poaching in her study area, and Mowat doesn't shy away from writing about that, either. It's a complex, controversial character study made all the more powerful as a story by the fact that Fossey was murdered -- hacked to death by machete, actually -- in her hut in the mountains, a martyr to the cause she championed for decades.

Mowat is still publishing at the same prolific rate that has marked his entire career. His latest book, No Man's River, was published in 2004, but I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm so out of touch with his recent work I've never heard of it. But I do have a hankering to track down copies of my old favourites and go on a Mowat bender.

[Link via Bookslut]


Anonymous said...

His greatest legacy will be teaching me what snow blindness was back when I was a wee kid -- in Two Against the North (I think).

WTG Farley!

Anonymous said...

He used to be relevant, and then he became the drunk rampaging clown of the Canadian literary world, hoisting his kilt at parties and generally scaring women and children... kind of like the angry Keiths guy of the book world.

Anonymous said...

Relevant and interesting.

You want a story of harrowing disaster, injustice and personal resilience? Try "The Desperate People".

You want an account of extreme field biology? Try "Never Cry Wolf"

You want a picture of life in Siberian Soviet Russia, in the mid-'60's? Try "Siberia".

You want an interesting thesis on the last two thousand years in the North Atlantic countries? Read "The Farfarers".

And if you just want a good, heartwarming story to read to your kids, read "The Dog Who Wouldn't Be". I first read it over 50 years ago.

Farley Mowat may not win the Pulitzer or the Nobel, but his humanity is exemplary, and his work is a continuation and development of the tradition begun by John Steinbeck, Ed Ricketts and Joseph Campbell, in the '30's.

Farley has a singular wide-angle vision that takes in the big picture along with the details, and makes an understandable picture of it.

I believe he is more relevant than ever.