Farley Mowat Essay - Critical Essays

Farley Mowat American Literature Analysis

Mowat’s most discussed books, the ones that made his career, are the three accounts he wrote of life in the Arctic—People of the Deer, The Desperate People, and Never Cry Wolf—and the reader’s first step in judging these works is to determine how much of them is truth, how much literary embroidery. The defense usually offered for Mowat’s way of telling his stories is to admit, yes, there are inventions that violate the letter of the truth, but at the same time, these inventions are faithful to the spirit of the truth, a much higher goal. As one defender put it, Mowatis concerned with reality, with truth, but with the underlying truths that are the concern of every creative artist. In his view, facts are important only as they relate to truth, and in themselves meaningless.

Closely connected to Mowat’s sympathy for the wolf is A Whale for the Killing (1972), inspired by the fate of a whale trapped at Burgeo, Newfoundland, in 1967 and slaughtered by men with rifles. Of the whale’s suffering, Mowat said,An awesome mystery had intruded into the closely circumscribed order of our lives; one that we terrestrial bipeds could not fathom, and one, therefore, that we would react against with instinctive fear, violence and hatred.

This remark reveals the key to understanding Mowat’s approach to nature and its creatures. A similar indignation informs Sea of Slaughter, a frontal attack on the destruction of numerous species from the oceans, and it explains his enthusiasm for writing Virunga: The Passion of Dian Fossey.

A persistent strain of contempt for bureaucracies colors many of Mowat’s narratives, especially in his controversial account of Ottawa’s treatment of the Ihalmiut in People of the Deer, as well as in his sharp criticism of Governor Smallwood’s whaling policy in Newfoundland. The mere title of Canada North Now: The Great Betrayal (1976) speaks loudly on this point, as does Rescue the Earth! Conversations with the Green Crusaders (1990). In both these volumes, Mowat’s political sympathies converge with his awe of the natural world.

Mowat owes much of his success to a plain style that carries incidents and characterizations along in a smooth narrative. In The Desperate People, for instance, the old Ihalmiut shaman Pommela emerges on the page in all his irascibility, and Pommela’s rival leader, Owliktuk, stands out as a courageous leader of his group. Uncle Albert in Never Cry Wolf is an unforgettable and singular companion to Angeline and George and their cubs. However, what most distinguishes Mowat’s depictions of people—and wolves—is his ability to enter imaginatively into their lives with a powerful human sympathy.

The Desperate People

First published: 1959

Type of work: Nonfiction

The author recounts the struggle for survival of the Ihalmiut Eskimos of the Keewatin District in the Canadian Northwest Territories.

The Desperate People describes the “virtual extinction” between 1952 and 1959 of the beleaguered Ihalmiuts in the inland plains known as the Barrengrounds. An appendix identifies by name all the Ihalmiut who were living in 1946 and either tells where they were living in 1958 or explains what happened to them. Of the 111 individuals, only 64 were known to be alive twelve years later, many of them at Rankin Inlet on the shore of Hudson Bay. Diphtheria was the commonest cause of death.

Due west of Hudson Bay, in the Canadian District of Keewatin, lies the Land of the Ihalmiut Eskimos, marked in the northwest by Dubawnt Lake and the Dubawnt River, in the southwest by Ennadai Lake, in the south by Nueltin Lake, and in the northeast by Yathkyed Lake. The Kazan River snakes down from the northeast to the southwest, and the tree line meanders around across the southern region. This is the home of the people christened by Farley Mowat as the People of the Deer in his book by that title. In 1912, the Ihalmiut, or “The Other People,” as they knew themselves, were hit by an epidemic of what was probably influenza. This tragedy was followed in 1913 by the first trading post, an institution that introduced the tribes to Caucasian trinkets, flour, cloth, and “much other sorcery” that would convert the Ihalmiut to fox trappers. The introduction of rifles in return for fox pelts meant a rapid decrease in the caribou herds (the “deer” of Mowat’s narratives are not the North American whitetail but caribou) and the disintegration of the people and their traditional way of life. Thus, by 1930, the Ihalmiut were reduced to four small groups, the largest being the People of the Little Hills, something above one hundred in number, clustered around Ennadai. The white trappers who swarmed into the Barrens in these years slaughtered the deer, poisoned the foxes with strychnine, and shoved the Ihalmiut aside. At the same time, the Ihalmiuts’ traditional enemies, the Idthen Eldeli, or Athapascan Indians, pushed northward to put pressure on the Ihalmiuts’ southern flank. Thus, by 1932, the community numbered no more than two hundred across the whole region. In the winter of 1942-1943, forty-four people, a third of the survivors, died of hunger, leaving only about sixty Ihalmiut struggling along northeast of Ennadai.

Mowat flew into Windy Bay in May, 1947,...

(The entire section is 2222 words.)