Western People Review - Grey Owl

Dry History? Not at all.
Reviewed by: Verne Clemence for Western People

History used to be the dry stuff of textbooks, but no more. Two new titles for the spring show just how much historical writing has changed.

Grey Owl: The Mystery of Archie Belaney is by Armand Garnet Ruffo, an Ontario writer and teacher with family links to the enigmatic woodsman who was one of Canada’s earliest, and most controversial, conservationists.

The young Archie Belaney lived with Ruffo’s grandmother’s Ojibwa family in the northern Ontario community of Bicotasing for three years while making his transition to an Indian identity. The author’s access to family photos and his grandmother’s memories gave him insights few other Grey Owl biographers have been able to claim into the early life of the unusual young Englishman. Grey Owl was known in the Indian community for his weakness for booze, but was accepted and admired nonetheless.

Ruffo, a poet, chose to write his account in the narrative verse with which he is most comfortable. The form, off-putting at first, soon seems appropriate to the life of a man who defied all conventions in a strangely naïve pursuit of his vision of a world that would emulate indigenous peoples in its treatment of the environment.

Ruffo exhaustively researched Grey Owl and a number of people who were close to him, including two of the five women he married over his short lifetime. The book is written in their various voices, a style Ruffo says is a version of creative non-fiction. The events are factual, but he put the words and thoughts into the mouths of the players. He also uses some notes from Grey Owl’s own documents.

It’s a strange story. The essentials have been threshed over again and again as a succession of writers dwelt upon Belaney the impostor, posing as an Indian and profiting from it. For the most part, the tone of Grey Owl biographies have been condemning and many writers have discounted the man’s beliefs and his efforts to conserve the natural world.

Ruffo is less judgmental. He deals in a matter-of-fact manner with the young Belaney’s unhappy upbringing at the hands of British aunts, and his subsequent escape to Canada where, after working for Eaton’s in Toronto, he took to bush life.

The bulk of the book follows Belaney into his solitary life in the wilds of northern Canada, where he trapped to live and to all intents and purposes became an Indian. Only after his wife could not stand his killing of the beaver did he change his ways and instead of trapping animals, begin to write about them. His writings were well received, and soon he was off to England for the first of two profitable but demanding speaking tours. He was also on the way to fame, fortune and death in his late 40s from exhaustion and heavy drinking.

Ruffo leaves it to history to judge Grey Owl’s moral standards, but he admires the man’s message. Grey Owl is an intriguing new examination of a much-examined life, well worth the evening or two required to savor a smooth writing style and an obvious love of language.

Article by Verne Clemence.

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