Today in Literary History – May 12, 1921 – Canadian author Farley Mowat is born

Farley Mowat, the prolific author and environmentalist who wrote more than 40 books of memoirs, history and adventures in the Canadian North, both for adults and children, was born on May 12, 1921 in Belleville, Ontario.

During the Depression Mowat’s father, a veteran of World War I’s Battle of Vimy Ridge, moved the family to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where Mowat began writing poems and stories for the local newspaper.

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As a boy, Mowat was fascinated by nature and wild creatures. He was equally fascinated by the Canadian far North and the Arctic, which he first visited with his uncle when he was 15.

Mowat served with the Canadian Army in World War II, enlisting in 1939. He spent most of the war fighting in Italy, remaining in Europe until the end of the war in 1945. He wrote about his war years in several books, including The Regiment (1955), And No Birds Sang (1976) and My Father’s Son (1992).

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After returning to Canada he earned a degree in biology from the University of Toronto and began the first of many trips to the remote Canadian Arctic as a research assistant on a biological expedition.

This experience led to his first book, People of the Deer (1952), about a famine in an Inuit village which Mowat believed the Canadian government was either ignoring or causing.

The book was a commercial success, but it was also the beginning of charges against Mowat that he either exaggerated or falsified his descriptions and experiences of life in the North.

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Despite being dogged by the controversy over the accuracy of his books, Mowat produced a string of bestselling novels and explorations of ecological disasters for nearly 50 years.

Never Cry Wolf (1963) helped change the public perception of wolves as predatory pests. Sea of Slaughter (1984) and A Whale for the Killing (1972) brought environmental issues to the fore and Virunga: The Passion of Dian Fossey (1987) is a well-regarded biography of the primatologist who was murdered while working in Africa.

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In addition, he wrote a series of humorous books about his childhood and family life. He was also an award-winning children’s book author. Lost in the Barrens (1956), The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be (1957), and Owls in the Family (1961), are still beloved today.

In 1996 the prestigious Canadian magazine Saturday Night published a cover story meticulously detailing the fabrications and exaggerations in Mowat’s best known books about the North.

In the article, John Goddard compared Mowat’s notebooks, and the testimony of others involved, against Mowat’s published writing and found that his descriptions of the extent and duration of his trips were highly fictionalized.

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Mowat was stung by the article and his reputation suffered for a time (he became derisively known in Northern communities as “Hardly Know It’) but supporters contended that he got the feelings and the atmosphere of his stories right and shaped them into compelling narratives.

According to The Canadian Encyclopedia Mowat’s books have been translated into 52 languages and have sold 17 million copies worldwide.

Mowat died in 2014, six days before his 93rd birthday.

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