Quill & Quire
Farley Mowat has courted a great deal of controversy over the years. Famously depicted as a Pinocchio-nosed liar on a 1996 Saturday Night magazine cover, Mowat has never been able to shake the accusation that he embellishes his stories. Despite this, Mowat has obstinately continued to pen straightforward books advocating better treatment of northern First Nations groups, conservation of Canadian wildlife, and more.
Picking up where his 2008 memoir, Otherwise, left off, Mowat’s new book traces his development as an author, with frequent digressions on subjects such as home-building, family, and wildlife. (His language is especially affectionate when describing animals, and in his acknowledgments he thanks his “friends, human and otherwise.”) Covering the episodes that shaped his particular worldview – from post-war research in the North to a sailing trip to Nova Scotia – the author takes direct aim at his critics by providing plentiful references to letters and other secondary sources to bolster his assertions.
In its overarching argument, Eastern Passage insists that progress-obsessed humans are destroying each other and the rest of the natural world. Mowat includes descriptions of traders abusing a sick native boy; beluga whales dying after the U.S. Air Force dropped a nuclear fission bomb into the St. Lawrence River; and a large boat (“one of the big new draggers, fish killers extraordinaire”) nearly squashing Mowat’s own small vessel. The narrative employs fast-paced, clear prose that captures individual accents and personalities.
There is, however, a certain male-centred bias to the writing. Incidental male figures, such as a bush pilot, are rendered vividly, while Mowat’s first wife, Frances, and other female characters are not as developed. Despite this, Eastern Passage provides an insightful narrative that elucidates Mowat’s past.
— Globe and Mail
"An insightful narrative that elucidates Mowat's past."
— Quill and Quire
"[Mowat's] celebrated style is in evidence from page one."
— Canadian Geographic
"Thoreau-esque at times. . . . The prose is effortless and entertaining."
From the Trade Paperback edition.
About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
IN FROM THE COLD
We had been waiting almost a month for Gunnar’s plane when, on the first day of October, I stepped out of the cabin to find the nearby gravel ridges alive with dense flocks of ptarmigan making their way south ahead of winter. When I paddled off to haul the net upon which we were now largely dependent for food, I had to break through a scum of ice that had formed overnight. There could be no doubt about it – if we were not picked up within the next few days, we would be marooned for another six or seven weeks until, and if, a ski-equipped plane could land on the frozen bay.
We woke on October 9 to a falling thermometer, a plunging barometer, and a sky darkening with snow clouds. A storm was brewing, and even the usually irrepressible Tegpa was reluctant to go outside until, just before noon, he flung himself at the cabin door in a paroxysm of barking.
Seconds later the Norseman roared low over the crest of the Ghost Hills and slammed down on Windy Bay, its floats shattering the skim ice like a hardball smashing a plate-glass window. Gunnar had finally arrived. Although more than a month late, he offered no explanation or apology. When I pressed for one, he replied casually:
“Pranged a drifting oil barrel on take-off a while back. Buggered a float and this old bitch pretty near sank. Took a while to patch her up. But what the hell, let’s get the show on the fuckin’ road!”
Time was always of the essence with Gunnar. I heaved our gear (it didn’t amount to much) on board, while Fran and Tegpa squeezed into the cramped little cabin even as Gunnar began opening the throttle and Andy shouted his goodbyes.
“Gonna be tight gettin’ to Brochet before dark,” Gunnar yelled to Fran and me. “Might have to spend the night on some godforsaken moose pond the middle of nowhere. But what the hell, there’s a bottle of rum in the back pocket of my seat. Have yourselves a snort . . . just don’t be givin’ that damn dog none! Don’t want no drunken dog aboard!”
Fran and I got a close-up of the world below us that day because there was a head wind to deal with, and in order to conserve gas Gunnar kept the Norseman, as he said later, “close enough to the goddamn trees if they’d been cherry trees we coulda’ picked a goddamn basketful.”
We flew on, fighting the wind while a shaggy carpet of spruce and Jack pine dotted with lakes and fragmented by streams and rivers slid by close beneath. Then abruptly we were over open water and Gunnar was shouting that this was Reindeer Lake.
A hundred and fifty miles long and fifty wide, contained by several thousand miles of convoluted shoreline, Reindeer Lake was the centre of the ancestral wintering ground for what in 1948 may have been as many as a quarter of a million Barren Ground caribou. The area was also home to about three hundred humans – Woodland Crees, Chipewyans (Dene), Metis, and a scattering of white trappers. There were only two settlements – a small one at the appropriately named South End, and Brochet, only slightly larger and at the north end.
Brochet was not much to look at as Gunnar slammed the plane down on the bay in front of the settlement. Two dozen log shanties squatted haphazardly along half a mile of sandy foreshore and three sketchily fenced compounds enclosed a handful of frame structures. Two of the compounds were owned by competing trading firms; the third belonged to the Roman Catholic mission and boasted a grand new church, the glitter of whose sixty-foot steeple encased in sheet metal could be seen miles away.
Having visited Brochet on two previous occasions, I was not dismayed. Frances may have been, but was so relieved to have escaped from the Barren Lands and at finding herself comfortingly surrounded by trees again that not even the coolness of our reception daunted her.
We clambered ashore under the glacial gaze of foxy-faced and soutane-clad Fr. André Darveaux, second-in-command of the Roman Catholic mission; aging Jim Cummins, a former trapper who was now the game warden for a region encompassing about fifty thousand square miles; and willowy Jim Johnson, clerk of a trading post belonging to an entrepreneur named Isaac Schieff, who lived several hundred miles farther south. Neither of Brochet’s most prominent residents – Bill Garbut, the long-time manager of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s sprawling, white-painted, red-roofed trading post, and white-haired Fr. Joseph Egenolf, head of the mission and the uncrowned king of the Reindeer Lake country – was in evidence.
Nominally, Brochet’s population included about 250 aboriginals and people of mixed blood, but most of these spent the better part of the year widely dispersed at fishing stations and winter camps. The day we arrived, fewer than two dozen were at the settlement and none showed any desire to be friendly with Fran or me, though they did seem much taken by Tegpa, whose impressive appearance and assured behaviour was in marked contrast to that of their own dogs.
Brochet possessed two of the three elements that made up the ruling triumvirate of most northern Canadian communities in those days. The missionaries and traders were well established, but the usually ubiquitous detachment of Royal Canadian Mounted Police was absent. There were, however, two soldiers of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals operating a weather station as part of an extensive surveillance system being constructed across the top of the continent to contain the godless communists of the Soviet Union. As a recent survivor of the Second World War bitterly averse to being sucked into another world holocaust, I would have kept my distance from the “weather station” had not my employer decreed otherwise.
A letter from the federal Department of Mines and Resources had been awaiting my arrival at Brochet. From it I learned that Andy and I (no mention made of my wife) were to winter with the soldiers in a small barracks attached to the station. However, when I approached the corporal in charge about this he told me he was under strict orders to deny civilian access to his high-security installation. The most he was prepared to do was let me send a radiogram to my department, apprising my employer of the situation and asking for instructions.
These came four days later, brusquely ordering me to make my own arrangements. Fran was indignant – though I was not.
“Typical SNAFU,” I told her. “Situation Normal All Fucked Up. Fact is, we’re probably lucky to be left to our own devices.”
She was not easily reassured, or perhaps she glimpsed an opportunity.
“They don’t seem to care what happens to us. Mightn’t it be best if you resigned the job and we just went on home?”
“I’m not going to do that, Fran. The cement heads have screwed up as usual, but we’ll get by. I’ll have a gab with the old game warden. Seems like a decent kind. Might help us out.”
Jim Cummins wasn’t much help on that front, but I did find out why our reception had been so reserved.
“Brochet heard you was coming, couple of months ago. Schieff’s manager spread the word you’d been up to some shady business – you and Charlie Schweder, when you canoed through here last summer. Said the Mounties was looking into it. You really pissed Isaac off when you bought your supplies for the rest of your trip from the Bay instead of from him. I’d like to help you and your pretty missus, but I got to stay neutral here . . . you understand?”
I thought to see what could be done for us by the Hudson’s Bay Company but the manager was away on a journey to South End.
Winter was almost upon us, and we were without shelter and had no stocks of food or fuel. Moreover we felt more and more like interlopers in a tightly knit and unwelcoming community. Our prospects did not seem bright as we sought temporary shelter in a shack that was already occupied by a horde of red-backed mice. They, at least, welcomed us, acting as if we and our sleeping bags (especially our sleeping bags) were a gift from the gods.
We were rescued by Father Egenolf, big-nosed, white-haired, lean as a whippet, with a bony handshake that could have crushed a baseball. He came striding through our doorway one morning, his rust-coloured soutane hanging about his ankles, to tell us he had just returned from a distant fish camp where he had been netting a winter’s supply of whitefish and lake trout for the three human and fifteen canine residents of his mission.
The Egg (as he was familiarly called, though never to his face) and I had met briefly during the summer of 1947. Now he gave me a tepid smile but lit up like a lantern as he grasped Fran’s hand and kissed it with Gallic fervour.
“Hélas! Here is a demoiselle in distress, non? I shall rescue her!”
Soutane swirling, he led us to a log cabin belonging to a Cree family currently wintering at South End.
Eighteen feet square and one storey high, the cabin had one room and a tiny, windowless attic. The logs had been plastered with a yellowish mixture of mud and dry grass but most of this had fallen off, exposing numerous cracks and gaps. The tarpaper on the steeply pitched roof was in tatters and the panes in the three small windows cracked and grimy. The only furniture was a battered cast-iron cookstove at the far end of a room floored with rough-hewn planks and ankle-deep in debris.
Father Egenolf arranged for us to rent this, the only unoccupied house in Brochet, for five dollars a month. The price was certainly right.