Book review: [N]ever Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat

Mark Twain on the tundra: At times, that’s how this 1963 classic played to my mind.   Farley Mowat’s sense of humor—often self-directed—and the acuity of his social criticism reminded me so much of Twain’s acerbic wit that I found myself reading Mowat but seeing in the text Sam Clemens’ ghost—flowing white hair, white mustache, white suit, as many photos portray him.

I read Never Cry Wolf for two reasons.  First, wolves have begun appearing in northern Utah and the rancher v. wolf conflict is heating up.  In fact, as the success of the reintroduction of wolves to the U.S. spills into states surrounding Yellowstone, human competition with wolves and with other humans supportive of wolves’ return has intensified sharply, with people scrambling to find language either to justify resisting the animals’ arrival or to lay out the welcome mat and defend the animals’ rights to territory. In Utah, questions of whether or not to accept wolves as neighbors and, if so, how to go about it, are as charged as any disturbance of the social status quo.  In the lower 48 states, the legal status of wolves has seesawed back and forth between endangered and not endangered then to threatened then back again to endangered, depending on the state.  Some parties object to their getting even that much consideration.  I wanted material to help me think about wolves in Utah. Never Cry Wolf provided a good place to start.

The other reason I chose this book: My husband suffered a stroke in July, had brain surgery in August, and needed help with recovery from both.  Fallout from stroke and surgery includes difficulties with processing and forming language.  I know from experience that reading aloud to another helps wire the listening brain for strength of attention and comprehension that then trickles down into a body’s uttered speech.   I have so much faith in reading aloud that I expect it to help reconfigure my husband’s resituating mind.  Mowat’s book reads aloud nicely and offers a simple but satisfying variety of tones, images, and thoughts.  It’s a competent narrative that applies an interesting vocabulary, and my husband appreciates a sharp and effectual word stock.  Plus, he admires wolves.

One of this book’s best qualities is that, while Mowat engages in social criticism, debunking both official and folk narrative takes on wolves, he shows readers his own foibles as cases in point.  For instance, he muses upon the absurdities of the bureaucracy that dispatched him to prove the villainy of wolves but comes to realize that he has brought to the study his own set of misconceptions, not only about wolves but also about himself. After spending hours of fruitless observation one day waiting for his research subjects to show themselves, Mowat discovers that the wolves had in fact taken up position behind him and had been watching him for he knew not how long.  He is unnerved, but dissects his uneasiness honestly:

My thoughts that evening were confused.  True, my prayer had been answered, and the wolves had certainly co-operated by reappearing; but on the other hand I was becoming prey to a small but nagging doubt as to just who was watching whom.  I felt that I, because of my specific superiority as a member of Homo sapiens, together with my intensive technical training, was entitled to pride of place.  The sneaking suspicion that this pride had been denied and that, in point of fact, I was the one who was under observation, had an unsettling effect upon my ego.

Determined to regain his rightful position as a member of the more highly evolved species, Mowat returns to the wolf esker to assert dominance.  Instead, in a scene that approaches slapstick, he suffers further self-humiliation.  Musing upon his anger over the incident, he comes to this realization:

This much was obvious, yet I was still strangely reluctant to let the myth [that wolves are conscienceless killers] go down the drain.  Part of this reluctance was no doubt due to the thought that, by discarding the accepted concepts of wolf nature, I would be committing scientific treason; part of it to the knowledge that recognition of the truth would deprive my mission of its fine aura of danger and high adventure; and not the least part of that reluctance was probably due to my unwillingness to accept the fact that I had been made to look like a blithering idiot—not by my fellow man, but by mere brute beasts.

I consider this degree of honesty necessary to any environmental narrative intended to offer real prospects for human relationships with the natural world and with other humans.  Mowat’s story describes people’s deplorable behavior toward another species, but how he goes about it excels by far the mere vilification of a competing group’s beliefs or behavior that some writers engage in to fortify their positions and that they confuse with cogent social criticism.  In fact, in examining his own motives and faults conscientiously, Mowat avoids the “classic gambit” he outlines toward the end of the book:

Whenever and wherever men have engaged in the mindless slaughter of animals (including other men), they have often attempted to justify their acts by attributing the most vicious or revolting qualities to those they would destroy; and the less reason there is for the slaughter, the greater the campaign for vilification.

I’ve seen the gambit deployed in less bloody campaigns.  While irascible nature writers don’t advocate the slaughter of folks whose points of view they disdain, it isn’t unusual for a nature writer to display a rivaling group in the least complimentary light possible, portraying the competing ethos as being culturally, spiritually, and intellectually inferior to their own.  Sometimes, this gambit employs heated rhetoric that renders opponents down into thoughtless brutes, their ways of life undeserving of consideration beyond scorn.  Mowat describes frankly how arctic hunters and trappers had storied the wolves, misrepresenting lupine behavior and laying to wolves’ account atrocities against nature and human interests, thereby shoring up their crusade against the animals.  Humans use this strategy in many contexts, not just in prejudicial wars against other species.  As a writer faced constantly with the problem of examining my own motives whenever I take up any narrative position, I find Mowat’s example golden.

True: as Mowat demonstrates, humans pose far more danger to the wolves than wolves pose to humans—at least in the arctic where both men and wolves have space to co-exist.  In fact, whether it happens through accident or intention, people pose greater threat to their own kind than might any resident wolves.  Mowat makes his points about human moral failures candidly, telling in plain language of such barbarities (attributed to wolves) as trophy-hunters savaging a trapped herd of caribou.  He also shows the results of other acts of bad judgment, such the deaths of a hunter and bush pilot recklessly skimming the ground while trying to shoot a wolf.  Yet always to his credit, Mowat swings the telescope around on himself, sometimes focusing it more sharply on his own psyche than he does on fellow human beings.  Even after the joy of discovery he experienced during his study of arctic wolves, the greater understanding of their culture he achieved and the brotherhood he came to feel for them, an incident toward the end of his study gives him reason to believe that, to his great shock and dismay, he has more in common with the trappers and hunters whose brutality he has limned than with the wolves he has come to admire:

I sat down on a stone and shakily lit a cigarette, becoming aware as I did so that I was no longer frightened.  Instead an irrational rage possessed me.  If I had had my rifle I believe I might have reacted in brute fury and killed both wolves.
…Mine had been the fury of resentment born of fear: resentment against the beasts who had engendered naked terror in me and who, by so doing, had intolerably affronted my human ego.
I was appalled at the realization of how easily I had forgotten, and how readily I had denied, all that the summer sojourn with the wolves had taught me about them … and about myself.

Like Peter after the third crow of the cock, Mowat awakens to his psychological betrayal with painful keenness. And he confesses to us his failure.  Such moments of point blank self-examination raise his narrative approach above the too-often praised and rewarded us-versus-them melodrama that some nature writers favor  and that is celebrated in the writing of genre pioneers like Edward Abbey.

The final judgment Mowat lowers upon himself and his fellow man is a depressing one, its truth perhaps jaundiced by the speaker’s absolute belief in his disgrace:

Somewhere to the eastward a wolf howled; lightly, questioningly.  I knew the voice, for I had heard it many times before.  It was George, sounding the wasteland for an echo from the missing members of his family.  But for me it was a voice which spoke of the lost world which once was ours before we chose the alien role; a world which I had glimpsed and almost entered … only to be excluded, at the end, by my own self.

Many people, finding themselves in similar situations, could not have resisted blindly punishing the creatures that had brought them face to face with the nakedness of their fears.  In Mowat’s attention to his own behavior and in his analysis of it, he not only avoids deeper betrayal of the wolves but also he takes full responsibility for his reaction to them rather than lays the fault for his rage and loathing to the wolves.  Such a stunning example of self-examination gives readers a clean chance to accept greater accountability for their own use of the natural resource we call language and for their attitudes toward Other, whether they encounter it in wild or human domains.  Lesser language that indulged in mere vilification of either wolves or the people who respond to them as Mowat realized he might have done would certainly have limited opportunities for reader self-reflection.  Had Never Cry Wolf depended upon outrage and blaming of the Other to carry its message, it would have further enabled continued unawareness of and deeper entrenchment in fear and antipathy toward both wolves and men–that is to say, it would have been an environmentally unsound work.

Never Cry Wolf proved just the thing for our needs, providing me with new thoughts regarding the wolf reintroduction.  At times, the whole family listened in, thoughtfully, when the story provided food for thought.  But also Mowat’s sense for the absurd sparked sorely needed family laughter during the unsettling circumstances surrounding the stroke and surgery. I’ll remember this book as having helped us reorient ourselves when we were in a distressing place.  I recommend Never Cry Wolf to readers of this blog—if they haven’t read it already.

About my bracketing the “N” in the post title—that’s not me making an editorial comment.  The library sticker on the book’s cover is placed so that it covers the “N” in the title, thus changing Never Cry Wolf to “ever Cry Wolf.”  That funny coincidence provoked further household levity.  Twain would have appreciated the joke, too.

8 thoughts on “Book review: [N]ever Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat”

  1. What a coincidence!

    I read this book when it first came out—a long time ago. I recall thinking that it wasn’t “scientific” enough for me, so I didn’t keep my copy. It just didn’t seem like a book I’d want to reread. But I guess I’ve changed.

    Last week I was thinking about books that have influenced the way I see the world, and Never Cry Wolf came near the top of the list. Even though I dismissed it when I first read it, it’s come to mind a lot in recent years with the controversies over wolf control and reintroduction. I came to the realization that Never Cry Wolf actually influenced how I see the world around me as much as any book I’ve read. In fact, just yesterday I borrowed a library copy, and started to reread it last night!

    I’d certainly add my recommendation to your thoughtful review.

    …And my hope for a speedy and complete recovery for your husband, and the best for you and your family during these undoubtedly difficult times. It’s always seemed to me that reading aloud to another person is a way of showing love for that person.

  2. Bill A: Yes, a great coincidence. Had I known, I might have started a book discussion instead of written a review!

    This was my first time reading the book. Yeah, I kinda missed the more “scientific” elements I enjoy in other writing, and I missed the music I tend to favor in literary science and nature writing–though Never Cry Wolf does have an interesting sound to it. I also missed getting a detailed description of the arctic landscape. But my impression is that this book is more about Mowat’s coming to awareness of his and other peoples’ failings where relationships with nature are concerned and he thought the scientific stuff might pose a distraction or be a put off to the larger audience he wanted to reach. So he chose social criticism and entertainment value over the technical goodies.

    It’s always seemed to me that reading aloud to another person is a way of showing love for that person.

    This is very true, and a little known secret. That is, it used to be a well-established practice for building and reinforcing personal and communal relationships, going clear back to our oral storytelling roots. But it has fallen out of favor, perhaps because reading has fallen out of favor. Yet the back-and-forth gifting that occurs in language shared aloud has a very complex and rich effect upon all the minds involved. Very intimate.

  3. Wm, I saw it too. Disney made it–that kind of baffled me at the time. But of course Disney has a tradition of making pro-animal movies and shorts. We have a copy of one of their very old live action classics, Lobo, which is about a wolf in the desert southwest who outsmarts even the most experienced ranchers, including a bounty hunter with a wolfhound. There are some remarkable scenes of “Lobo” as a pup playing with a pronghorn kid and baby raccoons. How did they do that? Of course, when it’s convenient to cast wolves as villains, they do that too, like in Beauty and the Beast.

  4. Very good to hear from you, too, Jim. I’ve tried twice to leave comments at Snail Hollow updating you about what’s going on and asking advice but lost one comment when a power outage disrupted the posting and the second when I had a spat with your site about disabled cookies. Both times, I didn’t have the time to reconstruct the comments, which were loooonnngggg.

    Things are lightening up. I’ll be in touch.

  5. This book is on my reminder list at paperbackswap.com. I have to get it one of these days. Would it be ok for a thirteen yr old?

  6. It was okay for my 13 year old. The kids’ consensus is that it’s suitable enough. A sensitive reader might find some elements troubling. There’s some hard material about how hunters–including trophy hunters–and trappers and governments treat wolves and other animals. Mowat and his cooked mouse recipes and scat studies might put some squeamish folk off–as it did his Eskimo visitors.

    It’s an easy, fast read and probably wouldn’t take long for you to scan through it and decide whether or not it’s the right thing for your kids.

Comments are closed.