________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 21 . . . .June 24, 2005


Grey Owl: The Curious Life of Archie Belaney. (Amazing Stories).

Irene Ternier Gordon.
Canmore, AB: Altitude Publishing (Distributed by Knowbuddy Resources), 2004.
127 pp., pbk., $9.95.
ISBN 1-55153-785-0.

Subject Headings:
Grey Owl, 1888-1938.
Authors, Canadian (English)-20th century-Biography.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by J. Lynn Fraser.

**** /4



Grey Owl is a mythical figure, still, to many Canadians. Many still may not know, despite a recent movie, that Grey Owl was not a native Canadian but an Englishman named Archie Belaney. After reading this straightforward account of Grey Owl's life, the reader may find him or herself not liking the man, but may, however, be impressed with his conversion to being a supporter of, and an author about, what we would now call the environment. His conversion was slow but deep. He had various adventures with wildlife, with beavers generally and with one beaver in particular named Jelly Roll who would become known to the world through Grey Owl's writing.

     In terms of what a young reader can learn from the book, this reviewer's response is mixed. Irene Ternier Gordon is a good writer who has given the reader an honest, unromantic view of a complicated man. Grey Owl was a young boy who had dreamed of adventure, who re-invented himself into a native Canadian trapper who became a well-known author, and who was also a philandering bigamist who did not support his own children.

     I found myself disliking the man but enjoying the story of his life. Gordon's writing does not moralize about the man's life but merely relates events as they occurred and how Grey Owl's behaviour affected himself as well as others. A younger reader could learn about the effects of one's actions on others and the eventual repercussions of lying. The author also successfully gives us a sense of the times in which Grey Owl lived, both in Canada's north and overseas, as well as his resourcefulness in both fashioning serial identities for himself and his ability to survive in various environments.

     As a soldier during World War One, Archie had contributed his marksmanship skills as a sniper and had distinguished himself while in service:

In Flanders, Archie's platoon commander decided to make him a sniper-observer. The commander recalled, "He had infinite patience and the gift of absolute immobility for long periods. His reports as an observer were short, to the point, and intelligent. Unlike many snipers, he did not make exaggerated claims of kills.' Belaney was a dependable, if not an outstanding soldier " (p. 41)

     He was also a man who would later risk his life to save a missing beaver:

The following day, when Archie and Pony [Grey Owl's wife of the time] were ready to set off for Doucet, they discovered one kitten was missing. They searched all day. When it was nearly dark, Pony heard Archie calling, "I've got him. I've got him." Pony found Archie buried up to his neck in muskeg. He was gripping a branch of a willow tree with one hand and the missing beaver with the other. (p. 69)

     It is in Grey Owls' own words that a better side of his character emerges as in his description of canoeing with his fellow rangers:

The canoes seem to leap suddenly ahead, and one after another, with a wild howling hurrah, we are into the thick of it. Huge combers [waves], any one of which would swamp a canoe, stand terrifically beside us there is a thunderous roar which envelopes us like a tunnel, a last flying leap and we are in the still pool below thrilled to the bone. (pp. 35-6)

     It is easy to understand why Grey Owl's dramatic writing became so popular to readers, and it also just as easy to realize that Archie or Grey Owl was a very complicated man who told lies, abandoned loved ones, and is partially responsible, according to Gordon, for instilling a recognition for conservation in a wide audience long before the 1960s made it popular. Gordon has given the reader an easy to read and multilayered view of a man whose love of nature influences us still.

     More mature high school students will enjoy Grey Owl's adventures and learn about the realities of living in the bush and with wild animals. They will also, hopefully, learn from his mistakes in dealing with people.

     The book would benefit from additional photographs, but the ones used in the text are effective. The Epilogue gives the reader a sense of Grey Owl's popularity at the time and his continued influence in the present day. The bibliography is useful as is the web site included in the acknowledgement.

Highly Recommended.

J. Lynn Fraser has written two guided reading books for grade six readers, and her articles appear in international magazines and newspapers.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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