WILDERNESS MAN: The Strange Story of Grey Owl by Lovat Dickson
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WILDERNESS MAN: The Strange Story of Grey Owl

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Dickson, author of the affectionate biography H.G. Wells (1969), has chosen another subject equally moonstruck and certainly as amazing. Until his departure at 50 for the Happy Hunting Grounds in 1938, ""Grey Owl"" was widely known to naturalists and adventurers both here and in Britain as a half-breed (Apache mother) born in Mexico who had spent much of his adult life in the Canadian woods hunting, trapping, and living the Noble Savage existence. His books about the experience were admired (Dickson, his English publisher, says without exaggeration that ""Pilgrims of the Wild is to life in the Canadian wilderness what Robinson Crusoe is to life on a desert island""); his lecture crowds in the '30's were enormous, eager to hear of a place ""where life could begin again. . .where the air was fresh and not stagnant with the fumes of industry, where wild animals and men could co-exist without murderous intent""; he was received at Buckingham Palace. It was thus a shock to learn that Grey Owl was a hoax. An Englishman named Archie Belaney! Actually born in Hastings and reared by spinster aunts among polite tea cups! But the unmasking of Grey Owl is not the end of the story: what makes Archie Belaney so intriguing -- and Dickson's firsthand knowledge helps immeasurably here -- is that he did live for a time among the Ojibway, adopting Indian manners and dress, and his nature books are genuinely written, conveying a prescient concern for the environment. ""We had been duped,"" says Dickson, learning of Grey Owl's death. ""There was no Arcadia. The machines were our masters, and we had been deluding ourselves in thinking that we could defy them."" Yet, on second thought, perhaps not; perhaps ""it was also the quality of Belaney's particular condition that he did not submit to the repressions which we accept as we grow to conform to society."" We thank Lovat Dickson for preserving this paradoxical man -- part impostor, part romantic, part rebel, part everyman.

Pub Date: Nov. 8th, 1973
Publisher: Atheneum