Globe and Mail Review - Grey Owl

Reviewed by: Fraser Sutherland

Archibald Stansfield Belaney wasn't comfortable in his own skin. Then again, it's unlikely he was any more comfortable in the feather-and-deerskins get-up he adopted as his replacement self. Belaney didn't like what he was. Grey Owl lived in terror that he'd be exposed as Belaney. Or baloney.

In retelling how a lonely and imaginative small boy in Hastings, England, transformed himself across the Atlantic into Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin (He Who Walks By Night), crusader for wildlife preservation and the native way of life. Armand Garnet Ruffo brings special advantages. He's the asociate director of the Centre for Aboriginal Education Research and Culture at Carleton University. Moreover, he's an Ojibwa, and it was from Ojibwa in northern Ontario, including the family of Ruffo's grandparents in Biscotasting, that Belaney learned much of his wilderness tradecraft. The result is a handsome book with lots of white space and good archival photographs, some from Ruffo's family.

Although the texture is occasionally lumpy with names, dates and facts, Ruffo narrates the Grey Owl story simply, cleanly, and smoothly -- a little too smoothly, perhaps, because the poems that are monologues tend to lack individuality, the women especially coming across as faceless and toneless. He relies extensively on documentary sources, including Grey Owl's bestseller Pilgrims of the Wild, and Devil in Deerskins, the memoir by his Iroquois wife Anahareo (Gertrude Bertrand), so that now and then the effect is less of poetry than of broken prose. The poet is at his best when he condenses complex personal history into his own deeply considered meditations or dramatic summaries, as in Why I Retreat (When Anyone Comes Too Close): [excerpt].

Ultimately, Grey Owl triumphs over what this poet - perhaps any poet - can do with his story. Ruffo appears to share the dilemma most people face in confronting the Grey Owl legend. The man - thanks mainly to the influence of Anahareo - was a force for good in decrying the greedy, heedless destruction of the wilderness, and in lauding the best alternatives native life had to offer. Yet he was a violent alcoholic who, like his father, abandoned wives and children, maiming lives and destroying his own. Ruffo doesn't really reconcile the split, so that we're left with some strange amalgam, a Grey Belaney or Archie Owl. But Ruffo does credit the Englishman (in Grey Owl's version, the half-Apache, half-Scot) with understanding that the Ojibwa were more than just a source of cheap labour for tourist lodges, and that the beaver was a living creature, not a pelt to be nailed to a wall.

Grey Owl's mesmerizing lecture tours, conducted at a killing pace during the last three years of his life (he died in 1938, at the age of 50), were good news for his publisher, Lovat Dickson, and may have made the wider public understand more about natives and wild animals. But one wonders - Ruffo doesn't - whether the blue-eyed Grey Owl's huge success didn't merely tap the myth of the Noble Savage, a legacy of French Romanticism that opposed corrupt civilization with an imagined state of existence simple but enriching, wise but innocent, sophisticated but natural. The fact that he was badly wounded in the trenches of the First World War could only have confirmed Belaney in the same view.

[excerpt]

Always the contradictions. Ruffo shows Grey Owl happiest paddling a canoe alone on a starlit lake. But when, as an immigrant from England, Archie Belaney was actually in the wilderness, he pursued Ojibwa virgins, smashed furniture and windows, tangled with the law, and couldn't wait to get a Gramophone in order to play Beethoven. During his final retreat to his nature preserve near Prince Albert, Sask., in the wake of an unmerciful lecture tour, Ruffo has him say:

What I need is solitude, to be left/ alone in peace/

so that I may untie my thoughts,/ call my beaver,/

play my records, chop some wood,/ cook some bannock,/

regain my strength, hunt for meat,/ live again -/

and learn how best to fade silently/ into the bush/

from where I've come. For I know I/ can never again leave/ this wilderness. (Grey Owl, 1938)

The wilderness may only have been in his head.

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