Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

* The storyteller’s art and campaigning non-fiction – Farley Mowat

Canadian author and naturalist Farley Mowat has come in for heavy criticism in recent years for falsifying and hugely embellishing parts of his books. For example, when Mowat said he had spent two summers and a winter studying wolves, the Toronto Star, a newspaper in Toronto, Canada, wrote that Mowat had only spent 90 hours studying the wolves. Mowat has admitted he doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.

While this may be very disappointing –  personally, I like to be able to trust the information in a non-fiction book and dislike the modern fashion of “creative non-fiction”.  The world as it is is fascinating without need of embellishment. True, sometimes situations need to be simplified in order to keep a storylike manageable, but the problem with making too free with the facts is that everything in the story then becomes a fairy-story.  Defenders of the techniques would correctly argue – as with Farley Mowat’s books – that massaging the facts to serve a greater mission is admissable. This is what politicians and lobbyists and spin-doctors also propound.  The result is that all public discourse becomes debased.

Mowat’s first book was “People of the Deer” published in 1952.  It tells the story of his time with the Ihalmiut, a group of Inuit (Eskimo) who live on the great Barrens plains of northern central Canada in an area now known as the Kivalliq Region of present-day Nunavut.  They are the only Inuit not to live by the sea.  Caribou (reindeer), not seal meat, is an important part of their diet.

When Mowat lived with them in the late 1940s, he estimated that the Ihalmiut had numbered 7,000 in 1886, down to 40 by 1947-48.  By 1950, only 30 remained. Their destruction was due to changes in their hunting dynamics (from hunting for food to hunting for furs), introduction of flour and sugar into their diet (through fur trader contact), disease (probably diphtheria), the failure of their primary food source (barren-ground caribou), and sickened sled dogs (possibly rabies).

It was Mowat’s book, ‘People of the Deer” that rescued the Ihalmiut from extinction.  His book made Mowat into a literary celebrity and without its publication the Canadian government could have conveniently continued to ignore these people.
Instead, Mowat’s indignation, his explanations of the ways of the people and his entertaining storytelling contributed to the shift in the Canadian government’s Inuit policy that – despite many cruel blunders – did eventually ensure their survival.

So if some of the information in “People ofthe Deer” is oversimplified or just plain wrong (as revealed by later studies that have had the luxury of longer research time and greater research dollars) perhaps Mowat can be forgiven for deciding that reaching a wide audience by entertaining them was more important than academic exactness.  His works have been translated into 52 languages and he has sold more than 14 million books.

“People of the Deer” by Farley Mowat.  First published in 1952.

According to Wikipedia:

“Mowat’s advocacy for environmental causes, and a writing style that “never let[s] the facts get in the way of the truth,” have earned him both praise and criticism: “few readers remain neutral.” Nevertheless, his influence is undeniable: Never Cry Wolf is credited with shifting the mythology and fear of wolves. His stories are fast-paced, gripping, personal, and conversational. Descriptions of Mowat refer to his “commitment to ideals,” “poetic descriptions and vivid images,” but also to his strong antipathies, which provoke “ridicule, lampoons and at times, evangelical condemnation.”

I found the book entertaining and fascinating but every time I wanted to believe something I was reminded that the incident, the information, the interpretation might just as easily have been knowingly distorted in order to be a good story.  Easy for us now to tut-tut at this fictionalizing, but Farley Mowat has always been a campaigning author for environmental awareness and there’s no doubt that he has largely succeeded.  Many of his critics today would have taken no interest in his subjects except for the way they were entertained, intrigued and persuaded to his his point of view by his storytelling.

Buy now: People of the Deer (Death of a People)


2 comments on “* The storyteller’s art and campaigning non-fiction – Farley Mowat

  1. Martine Pavel
    February 22, 2010

    Thank you for the great article. I will follow you via RSS.


  2. connie
    November 13, 2012

    mr dennison,
    for me, you fall into the category of persons who should not be writing about something that they have a weak understanding of. as you wrote about the falsehoods you perceived in mowatt’s book, you introduced a few inaccuracies of your own from ignorance of the topic on which you are expounding. for example, “Their destruction was due to changes in their hunting dynamics (from hunting for food to hunting for furs), introduction of flour and sugar into their diet (through fur trader contact), disease (probably diphtheria), the failure of their primary food source (barren-ground caribou), and sickened sled dogs (possibly rabies)”… you successfully made the point that their primary food source failed. their destruction did not come from a change in hunting dynamics, it came from the hunting to extreme of the caribou herds in their southern wintering grounds. their numbers were vastly depleted by whites in the south and hence their migrations to ihalmiut lands “failed”. flour and sugar did not kill them. and to say that it was probably diptheria that killed them is to reveal you lack of knowledge. tb and polio were the biggest killers. the dogs simply starved to death, along with their human companions.
    mr. dennison, it is too much to read your inaccuracies. good on you that you did encourage to read mowatt. i encourage you to read the direct stories from the ihalmiut that survived several brutal relocations while starving. there are films and words, as well as photos, all over the internet that are primary sources of information about the story of the ihalmiut. i suggest you educate yourself before picking up your pen or sitting at the keyboard.


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This entry was posted on February 17, 2010 by in Books/Language, Current Affairs and tagged , , , , , .
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