Saturday, November 18, 2006


Meeting Farley Mowat

There are some people who are so iconic, so legendary, that when you actually meet them in person, it's a little bit of a surprise to find out that they are ordinary flesh and blood after all.

Farley Mowat is that kind of person. I think he was the first person I ever understood to be a Canadian Author. The fact that he wrote books was important, but the fact that he was a Canadian who wrote books was even more important. Reading Never Cry Wolf was the first time I, born and bred in the city, became aware that 'wilderness' was more than the park at the end of the street, with its little copse of trees.

This week, Farley Mowat was in the neighbourhood because they named a school after him. He said that of all the honours he has received, including the most prestigious Order of Canada, having the school named after him was his greatest honour.

Friday night, he was in our local bookstore for a small reading and a book signing, and I couldn't resist going. I have a small collection of autographed Canadian literature: Douglas Coupland, Margaret Atwood, Mordechai Richler, and a few local authors. I'd love to meet Will Ferguson some day, and add his signature to my collection, and the autographed book I most covet is that of the reclusive Alice Munro, my first favourite author. Maybe some day.

But I never imagined that I'd have a chance to meet someone as iconic, as mythic, as Farley Mowat. The man is 85 years old, and from what I saw yesterday, still sharp as a tack. He's a known curmudgeon, but was charming and eloquent in the brief question and answer session that followed his reading from his latest book, Bay of Spirits. I stood in line for about an hour to have him sign my newly acquired hardcover, and I estimate I was about the middle of the pack. The poor man must have had a serious case of writer's cramp by the time he got home that night.

They had asked that we write on a post-it note exactly what we wanted him to write, but by the time I got to the desk, he was merely writing "to so-and-so" and his own signature. Given the fact that it was near my bedtime on a Friday night after a particularly long week, I hadn't come up with anything more clever than "To Danielle, (Beloved), Tristan, Simon and Baby" anyway.

(My favourite author autograph was actually how Douglas Coupland inscribed my companion's copy of Generation X back in 1993. He wrote, "Dear Tom, Thanks for helping me knock over that 7-11. Your pal, Doug." He wrote it across a traced outline of his own hand.)

Farley... er, Mr. Mowat... er, Farley Mowat took a moment after writing all that down to look up at me, and I could do nothing more intelligent than beam a thousand-watt smile at him. Lacking something pithy to say, but with utter sincerity, I told him it was truly an honour to meet him. He smiled his own genuine smile and said, "I would say God bless you, my dear," and he gestured toward the very long epigraph he had just inscribed, "but it looks like your life is full of blessings already."

I smiled the whole way home. It's truly a joy when a hero is able to not only meet, but surpass your expectations of him.

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