I search the web for others' takes on nature writing, so why not offer my own? I hope you'll respond. Here's more on the blog philosophy.

September 17, 2007

Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat

This classic defense of wolves never strays into preaching; it makes its points through slapstick adventure. A hapless young biologist named Farley Mowat gets shipped off into the bush by the Canadian government and instructed to conduct meticulous observations of wolves. He is to disembowel a lot of wolves and prove that the ravening beasts are decimating the caribou. Instead, the wolves disprove his assumptions at every turn. He becomes an ardent fan of their family life, sense of humor, restraint, and good nature. He decides to skip the disemboweling. An Eskimo named Ootek helps to illuminate wolf nature and plays the wise straight red man to Mowat's buffoon. Mowat hides under his canoe from wolves that turn out to be huskies; he ogles a she-wolf he has christened Angeline. Some of his antics could come right out of a Chaplin movie. Perhaps Chaplin should have done a movie in the far north not about Gold Rush prospectors who eat shoes, but about wildlife biologists who eat creamed mice to test their nutritional value. In one scene, Mowat jumps up naked from sunbathing to run off after a pack of wolves in hopes of observing a caribou hunt. When the wolves ignore the caribou, Mowat runs at the pack, swearing, in frustration. An Eskimo lad tells his mother, who never speaks to the mad white nudist again.

This nature writing does not sing. It is not meant to. When Mowat mentions the tundra plains around him, he calls them dreary. Nor does he praise the wolves' appearance much. What's more, enough experts have questioned the veracity of his observations that Barry Lopez labels Never Cry Wolf a "fictionalized account" in his book Of Wolves and Men. Yet Lopez still recommends Never Cry Wolf as an introduction to the species. The truth is that the book doesn't need beauty or literal truth to draw us closer to nature. Through Mowat's stories, we come to share his affinity for wolves, and we understand the hunger for connection that propels his scientific curiosity.


Diane said...

I love all the book reviews you're doing -- a great idea. This book is likely the one that really made an impact on me as a child. I'm certain the seed was already firmly planted but Mowat helped to germinate and fertilize that seed within me.

Diane, Sand to Glass

Jeane said...

Your review of this book is highly entertaining! I loved it when I first read it fifteen years ago- and went on to read many more books by Mowat.