Grand old man of Canadian literature dies

Author and writer Farley  Mowat in his home in Port Hope  on May  07 2012. (Photo: VINCE TALOTTA/TORONTO STAR)
Author and writer Farley Mowat in his home in Port Hope on May 07 2012. (Photo: VINCE TALOTTA/TORONTO STAR)

Just last week I gave my copy of Farley Mowat’s Eastern Passage to a friend with a note saying: “Prescribed reading for all new Canadians”.

And today he died, just five days before his 93rd birthday. What a pity. There’s another famous author gone. Funny how it takes a news item like this to remind you yet again of something rather wonderful that you need to read again.

I was told, on arriving in Canada, that there are certain authors who wrote about Canada, and some Canadian authors, whose books I must read if I want some insight into the Canadian mentality:

  • Margaret Atwood, of course, Surfacing (Atwood wrote her own analysis of Canada’s Most Important Books for the Literary Review of Canada, listing her top 100 works, and adding that to do so is a thankless task that would cause a furore.
  • Annie Proulx – though she is American – The Shipping News, for her depiction of Newfoundland
  • Brian Moore, for Black Robe
  • Will Ferguson, because he’s funny and wrote How to be a Canadian (with Ian Ferguson) – in fact, our friends gave us a copy at our housewarming. (The Dutch equivalent would be The Undutchables, by Colin White, 1989. Can’t figure out how The Netherlands works? Read this.)
  • Alice Munro – of course.
  • Stuart McLean – naturally.
  • Stephen Leacock, old-school Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town
  • Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (the Canadian counterpart of the American series of Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder)
  • Robert W. ServiceThe Cremation of Sam McGee, Service’s famous poem about the Yukon Gold Rush. Actually I already knew the opening lines by heart: “There are strange things done in the midnight sun / By the men who moil for gold; / The Arctic trails have their secret tales / That would make your blood run cold; / The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, / But the queerest they ever did see / Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge / I cremated Sam McGee.”
  • And Farley Mowat – if you could get your head around his writing. Let’s just say he is an acquired taste – But what a taste!

Narrative non-fiction that will grip you

Mowat was an environmentalist, squarely on the side of indigenous Canadians and an outspoken critic of attempts to impose Western culture on First Nations peoples. And he wasn’t too kind about the Canadian government either.

In Atwood’s Top 100 List, Ken McGoogan writes about Mowat’s People of the Deer (1952), No.29 on the list: “Academic critics have never given Mowat his due. Possibly they resent his spectacular commercial success: books published in 25 languages and 40-odd countries, international sales exceeding 14 million copies. More likely, they have dismissed Mowat because the prevailing orthodoxy privileges fiction over non-fiction, and certainly over what the author called “subjective non-fiction.”

With People of the Deer, a work distinguished by its literary strategies, Mowat launched a singular career, advancing the traditions of both exploration literature and what today we call creative or, more accurately, narrative non-fiction. This account of his encounters with the vanishing Ihalmiut people during a two-year stay in the Arctic is a landmark of Canadian literature.” 

People of the Deer, by Farley Mowat
People of the Deer, by Farley Mowat

I read both Mowat’s first book, People of the Deer, and immediately after that, his last, 44th (!) book, Eastern Passage (2010). The latter is a memoir of him as a young man, settling down, getting married, building a house and dealing with “civilization” while trying to get People of the Deer published. His descriptions of coping with neighbours, in-laws, government types and publishers are very honest and very, very funny.

This is quite different from People of the Deer, which I found gripping, but also confusing, raising many questions, not giving answers, and at the same time intensely personal, passionate, observant and  – in places – angry. You simply have to read it for his painterly depiction of his time in the 1940s with the Ihalmiut ᐃᓴᓪᒥᐅᑦ [ihalmiˈut] in the Canadian barren lands (the Keewatin Region, west of Hudson Bay), and particularly their hunting of caribou. At times I would feel almost shell-shocked after certain passages, throwing it down and crying to my husband: “Have you READ what he says? Was it REALLY like that?” Of course, it moved me to do my own research into the Ihalmiut, the People from Beyond.

PS – Time to tackle that 100-long list

Eastern Passage, by Farley Mowat
Eastern Passage, by Farley Mowat

In terms of getting my required dose of Canadian literature, I’m miles from finishing Atwood’s list. However, I have made some interesting discoveries, such as Brent Butt’s comedic genius. Canadians know him as the lead actor and creator of the TV comedy series Corner Gas, set in the fictional town of Dog River, Saskatchewan. (Read more…)

Atwood also lists William Gibson’s Sci-Fi classic Neuromancer on her top list of Canadian novels. Gibson moved to Canada in 1976 and now lives in Vancouver. Neuromancer is not set in Canada, but who wouldn’t want to appropriate a name and a novel as famous as that?


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