A one-of-a-kind book, and with a misleading authorship—for this is actually a collection of correspondence between Mowat, one of Canada's most popular and cantakerous writers, and his novelist-librarian father during the harrowing World War II years of 1942-45.
As these letters begin, Mowat is in Italy, slogging through the trenches, nearly burnt out from "coming of age in a world gone mad.'' His letters home crackle with nervous energy and undisciplined intelligence. He writes of war's horrors ("something hellish has happened but all I can say for the moment is that the regiment has been to hell, and only part of it got back''); composes nature ditties ("The shy and self-effacing Mole/is happiest when in a hole''); and recounts his loves and ambitions, last night's shelling, life in the trenches, his lust for books and typewriter ribbon. Angus Mowat writes back with salvos of love, encouragement, and humor. This, one feels, is a father-son relationship as it ought to be. Angus talks of his own military work; prods Farley to produce ("My son, don't let your writing go, no matter what happens''); and dreams of a writing duet ("if it could only come down to two of us pecking at two typewriters in two cabins at two ends of some little island''). Two lives unfold: Angus publishes a novel that he sends to Farley, who doesn't like it but won't say so; Farley, at war's end, gets embroiled in a comic attempt to retrieve German armaments for a Canadian museum. Mom sends a few missives, touching in their tenderness. But what's important here aren't events but a relationship—the preserved voices, one cranky-old, the other cranky-young, of two men bound together by blood and words.
Not a classic—Mowat's talent hadn't yet matured, and Angus wasn't of Farley's stature as a writer—but a bracing reminder of what really matters.