Prairie Fire Review - Grey Owl
Reviewed by: Sue Sorensen
The form of this book about that famous naturalist and self-invented Indian, Grey Owl, is unusual. Armand Garnet Ruffo, an Ontario writer of Ojibway descent whose family befriended Archie Belaney before he transformed himself into Grey Owl, has written a series of narrative poems about the Englishman's life. The poems are informal and unaffected, and Ruffo has wisely not given in to the poetic temptation to write openly about himself (although there is no doubt that his family's stories about Grey Owl are important for him). What Ruffo has managed to do, obviously after thorough research, is to give voice to varous aspects of Grey Owl's enigmatic character and, in addition, to tell the equally intriguing stories of people around Grey Owl, his wives and lovers and friends.
A book of poems is particularly well suited to this sort of enterprise. In a series of poems the contradictory elements of Grey Owl's personality can be related with a deftness and lightness which prose might not have been able to capture. And Grey Owl himself was so mysterious that a non-fiction history in a journalistic or academic style would run the certain danger of misrepresenting the man. Who can say exactly why he told the lies he did, why he walked away from so many women in his life, why he drank and fought? Even his relationship with nature is not as simple as it might seem: as a trapper and as a writer and lecturer he needed to make money from the wilderness. What he gave and what he took were in uneasy association with each other.
Ruffo's poems succeed in communicating these diverse sides of Grey Owl, making of him neither a hero nor a charlatan. He is remarkably tolerant of Grey Owl's appropriation of a native identity, attempting to understand Grey Owl's real need to belong to a new culture and pointing out that natives who knew Grey Owl were very accepting of him and, it seems, grateful to his mediating presence in cultural and conservation matters.
As poetry, Ruffo's book has no great amount of lyricism or complexity, but his readability is fitting and has much to recommend it. The photographs throughout are a welcome addition, and one emerges from the book with a real sense of the many-sided nature of Grey Owl. The other character who vividly comes across is the compelling Anahareo (actually Gertrude Bernard), Grey Owl's common-law wife who invented as much as he did a wilderness identity for herself and to whom Ruffo gives much of the credit for insisting that Grey Owl consider the natural world with more compassion.
Ruffo's poems hint at broader questions about cultural and personal identity, and his conclusions are humane, sympathetic, and appropriately ambivalent. What Grey Owl had the courage to do is what many of us only imagine doing: he reinvented himself quite brazenly. That Grey Owl was successful in challenging exploitative attitudes toward nature mitigates our censure of his masquerade. Certainly this story would be much different if Archie Belaney had gone Indian merely for his own pleasure and never lifted a finger for the cause of conservation. These poems are a poignant reminder not only that identity is a vexed matter, but that honourable results often stem from mixed intentions.