Book Review: Otherwise by Farley Mowat, an Enthralling Read

Published Categorised as Book Reviews

Farley Mowat begat the popular Black Brant sounding rocket and air-to-air missile Velvet Glove when his patriotism and search for a new purpose after WWII led him to… well, you’ll have to read Mowat’s latest book Otherwise (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2008) to find out how he accomplished this feat.

The few reviews I’d seen told nothing about this unMowat-like exploit, but it doesn’t surprise me. George Stroumboulopoulos of The Hour probably asked Mowat to recount another WWII tale, one not in this book, as it speaks to Mowat’s status as eccentric, anti-war, compassionate environmentalist unlike the one beginning on page 138. But the rocket story enthralls much more.

Otherwise covers Mowat’s life from his birth in 1921 to 1948 (officially from 1937 to 1948). He writes with his distinctive verve and, at the beginning of the book, is much in love with lists, lists of collections, lists of food, and lots and lots of lists of birds. He flows through the years seamlessly with stories hilarious and sobering, including his gleeful description of killing birds for science’s sake. He uses journal entries and letters effectively, especially for the war years. Depending on his old writings for those years, I imagine would be easier on the psyche since it would allow a distance that putting oneself back in time would not.

Whether writing about his 16th birthday among the birds or WWII or his expedition to the Barren Lands or even resolving mysteries and giving background information, Mowat shapes his stories with a cadence and love of words, using the language of the day, that draws you in to that time, keeping you glued, until he jars with a note of present-day opinion. It is said better to show than to tell, and nowhere is that adage clearer than when Mowat injects an opinion that he holds today — rather than one from that time — and it is especially bad when it is based on faulty fact as on page 83 with his reference to coyotes (contrary to Mowat’s opinion and as experts have shown, coyotes thrive when humans threaten).

Unfortunately, he resorts to this habit in the ending and makes a blanket statement about humanity. I wonder how much his war experiences, his own reactions to terror, and his need to extrapolate to all other humans, minus the aboriginals in his opinion, shaped that statement. I, personally, would not have reacted in the way he did and was dumbfounded by his. It would have been much more effective if he had left the story in such a way as to cause readers to consider their own reactions in light of his; even if he had simply omitted the last two sentences it would have been better. Instead he crashes the mood he had so carefully built up in the last pages and creates a barrier to self-reflection in the reader.

Critics opine that Mowat is free and easy with his facts. But I also believe that editors ought to be held accountable. Whether it was the famous James Frey incident or the recent Herman Rosenblat story or the year that changes from page to page in Otherwise, publishers go the cheap route, leaving the writer to be writer, editor, and fact checker all in one (which is just about impossible to do as writing puts you so close to the manuscript that you need a fresh, objective perspective to find the verbal tics, inconsistencies, and questionable facts). The ordinary reader relies on the editor and fact checker to do this job as Mowat’s writing is so good that one would not know which is truth, which fiction. Some of the errors in Otherwise were easy to spot, easy to fix. Why did editors not do so? Facts relying on his memory and journal entries would’ve been harder to check up on, true, but his historical asides would not have been since there exists published material and other sources on them. And, as well, why did no one at M&S think to add a map? Editors of mass paperback historical mysteries manage to think of such things, knowing most readers aren’t geography majors.

If you are a Mowat fan, you will enjoy reading this book, from its familiar Mowat-type tales to the shocking revelations. If you have not read anything by Mowat, begin with Otherwise. It sets up and explains the birthing of his previous books, and it will make you fall off your chair laughing and sit still in deep thought.

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