A highly readable biography of a piece-of-work in progress: Farley Mowat—scourge of all ratty human behavior on Earth, prolific writer, sheer presence, still very much alive and kicking at 82—is measured and found impressive by novelist/biographer King (Virginia Woolf, 1995, etc.).
Mowat, who has enjoyed wide popularity in the US (except at the State Department, which considers him undesirable and forbade him entry in 1984) as well as everywhere else, gets a very workmanlike profile from fellow Canadian King (English/McMaster Univ.). The biographer avoids amateur psychologizing, even though he could have had an unhappy field day while charting Mowat’s ever-sticky relationship with his father; King mostly hews to the facts as remembered by Mowat, his family, and various literary associates and as recorded in copious letters and journals, all made available to the author. Mowat’s more celebrated acts—running naked across the snowy wastes, howling at the moon, appearing at readings and parties in a kilt (“sometimes he would ostentatiously remove his underpants and throw them away”)—are situated within the context of his development as a writer and a voice for environmental sanity and the rights of native populations. It’s not difficult for King to discern the roots of Mowat’s darker, tentative side, including his solitariness and urge to wander: during WWII, “any belief he had possessed in moral or ethical goodness in human existence [was] shattered,” a disenchantment deepened by the degradation of the Inuit and Ihalmiut and their environments, which he personally witnessed. Mowat’s ecological concerns remain a steady, forceful subject here. King provides the reader with introductions to most of his books (Aftermath, 1996, etc.), a look at the vibrant relationship between Mowat and his longtime editor Peter Davison, and a good summary of Mowat’s feelings when it comes to the human race: “we, the most successful of all animals, are almost the most stupid.”
A valuable backgrounder for those about to delve into Mowat’s ouevre.