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March 3, 2010

An other Canada, a book review

Judith Maclean Miller

More by this author...

Otherwise, Farley Mowat, McClelland & Stewart, 2008, 351p, ISBN 9-780771-064906

At the very beginning of his book, Farley Mowat includes an Author’s Note, where he describes it as “a memoir of my life between early 1937 and the autumn of 1948, excluding my descent into the black horror of the Second World War.”

If the list inside the front cover is correct, then this is Mowat’s 49th book. He writes that it may be his “last hurrah,” but I think he has said that before.  He is only 89.

The most appealing aspect of this book is its voice.

A reader has the strong feeling that it would be pleasant to sit by a fire with Farley Mowat, sipping whatever beverage is on offer, from tea to whisky, listening to him telling tales.

He is a wonderful raconteur, with an ear for the pacing and nuances of a story. And he has many tales to tell.

This voice of the story teller is also unswerving and honest. Mowat is never coy; he never tries to hide the truth. Indeed, most of this book is an attempt to get at truth, to determine who he is and what he values.

It becomes clear that Mowat cares deeply for what he calls the Others, the birds, animals, insects, amphibians, fish, that he first met as a boy and for whom he has the highest respect.

He laments the abuse of them, the loss of them, the exploitation of them—especially in the wilds and barrens of Canada.

After his return from the war, disoriented and deeply scarred, unable to settle into civilian life, Mowat seeks out the Others, taking great comfort in observing them, in finding that he can move among them in a kind of acceptance. They heal him and help him begin to re-enter life.

Mowat also has great sympathy for the peoples of the northern places of Canada who have also suffered from incursions of the kablunait, the white men, to the point where he often finds himself embarrassed to be part of the white race.

Through tales of his own adventures wandering Canada, Mowat weaves history.

His story is, sadly, to a great extent, a tale of a time past. He says himself that he is astonished by the latitude he and his friends were given to explore their world, urban, rural and wilderness.

They often set off into distant spaces with minimal gear, and were always helped when they found themselves in trouble. Apparently, their parents trusted their fellow citizens to watch out for young, inexperienced off-spring. Now parents are much more cautious.

The world these young people were exploring was full of wild-life. One of the hardest things for Mowat, returning from the war, was to discover that much of that abundance had disappeared, to be replaced by dried up coulees and dead trees, looking almost like the war zones he had left behind.

He had to go further and further afield to find that company of the Others which he desperately needed.

This book is in many ways a book about loss: a lost childhood, a vanishing natural world, an innocence left on the battlefields of Italy, “a world and a fellowship that had once been ours.”

At the same time, this writing, this lively voice, preserves all of these—and makes them accessible to the reader.

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