Mowat considered a lot of his writing to be “subjective non-fiction”, which means that he took a little (and sometimes a lot) of artistic license with his work. Would they have been as enthralling without? I doubt it. Do you need to read them with that in mind? Yes, you certainly do.
The first book that I read of his was Owls in the Family, and by the gods, didn’t I want a horde of pet owls more than anything else in the world. I begged my grandfather to get me an owl. I dreamed of having one that I could raise from a chick into a great majestic bird, with snowy white wings and piercing eyes. I spent hours ignoring the world, eyes glazed and distant, as I thought about what I would call it, how I could keep my brother from playing with it, and how we would be the best of friends. Of course, no one ever got me an owl. The closest I got to having one was gazing at the Snowy Owls through a wired dome at the zoo.
The next book that I read by Mowat was The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be. As you have probably guessed, after reading that I wanted a dog who would wear goggles and climb trees. We did get a dog eventually, but her time with us didn’t last because she liked to herd vehicles and almost caused a series of accidents from trying to nip at moving tires.
After going a few years without reading anything else by Mowat, I eventually picked up Never Cry Wolf. It was right after I had read a NatGeo article about how the culling of wolves in Northern Canada had caused the ecosystem to respond negatively (too many caribou, not enough flora, etc.). This book, more than the others, pulled at my heartstrings and left an ache. I was older, smarter, and better read than before. I had trouble believing it in its entirety, even though I so wanted every word to be true. It was the first time that I wondered about the actual truth behind his words, the first time that I felt let down.
I did some research after finishing the book, and what I found made me feel even worse. The book itself received a lot of negative attention from experts and researchers in the field. If you want to look more into that, just click on the link for the book. It’s not the only book that caused a bit of controversy, but it’s probably the one that caused the most.
Yesterday, when I heard that he was gone, I started to think about my experiences with the books I have read by him. Regardless of the fact that there are some questionable “facts” in them, the experiences and feelings that I gleaned from them were real. I know a lot more about owls than I ever would have without him. I hug my dogs a little tighter when I think about Mutt. I know that humans make stupid decisions when it comes to the natural world, and that those decisions can cause nature to respond in ways that we hadn’t anticipated.
Would I have learned these things without him? Would I have been able to escape the long bus rides home from school, fraught with bullies and loud children and strange smells, had I not had my nose jammed in one of his books? Probably not. Sure, I would have found something else, but Mowat had a knack for writing. His words caught you like a fish on a hook and reeled you in. He was amusing, intelligent, and easy to get along with in his writing. He taught me to be interested in things that mattered, like nature and animals, and our environment, instead of nail polish and lip gloss. I am a better person for having read his words.
Farley Mowat has given me so many things, and though he has passed, I will continue to receive these gifts he has left every time I read one of his books over. He wasn’t a perfect writer, but he was a damn good storyteller.
Cheers, Farley. Your name is one that won’t be forgotten quickly.