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  • Apostate Englishman: Grey Owl the Writer and the Myths by Albert Braz
  • Misao Dean
Albert Braz. Apostate Englishman: Grey Owl the Writer and the Myths. University of Manitoba Press. xvi, 192. $27.95

Apostate Englishman by Albert Braz contributes two highly original perspectives to the scholarship on Grey Owl. The first is the concept of apostasy: Braz suggests, "what troubled many people was not so much that Grey Owl had fooled them about his identity and embraced the North American Indigenous way of life but that he had forsaken European culture. That is, he had committed cultural apostasy." Braz points out that the anger over Grey Owl's imposture is not necessarily shared by Indigenous readers: culture switching is common in many Indigenous communities where adoption is taken seriously, and Anishinaabe writers Garnet Ruffo and Gary Potts view Grey Owl's identification as Indigenous sympathetically. Braz explores this idea of cultural apostasy throughout the book, suggesting that debates about cultural appropriation or imposture mask the anger and disgust of settler culture readers at the idea that the English Archie Belaney had directly rejected his European identity.

Braz suggests that instead of expressing moral indignation about Grey Owl's choice to represent himself as Indigenous (and, in case there is any doubt, he offers many examples of Grey Owl directly claiming Indigenous descent in print and in his letters), readers might attend more closely to both his writing and his conservation philosophy. This is the second major contribution of Apostate Englishman: reasoning that "Grey Owl's biography has often impinged on the interpretation of his work," Braz suggests that a true assessment of Grey Owl's accomplishments as an author can only be arrived at if "we read his texts, not the author." Temporarily forsaking his role as a cultural historian for that of a literature professor, Braz performs a close reading of Grey Owl's books and essays, particularly problematizing the contradictory self-representation of the author, and his literary style. Braz suggests that no one who read the books critically could have failed to notice that his writing style is replete with attitudes and phrasings that can only be English. Braz recounts that an early reviewer of Men of the Last Frontier suggested it was the work of a ghostwriter, and that this accusation prompted Grey Owl to vigorously assert [End Page 114] his authorial rights, and refuse even editorial revisions of his subsequent works. Linking Grey Owl's writing to both the Romantic poets and to Longfellow, Braz also foregrounds the influence of Grey Owl's first wife, Angele Ekwuna, who introduced him to Anishinaabe culture and to the extended family and community members who would rename him Grey Owl. Braz suggests that by locating the source of his conservation philosophy in Indigenous knowledge "Grey Owl embodies an alternative vision of Canadian nation, one that is not shared by a significant portion of the country's current cultural elites."

Apostate Englishman also includes a chapter that considers the role of Grey Owl's fourth wife, Anahareo, in helping to form his conservationist philosophy and encouraging him to write, and also in publicizing and popularizing his work. Braz compares the two versions of Anahareo's book, Devil in Deerskins, in order to demonstrate Anahareo's role in debates about Grey Owl after his death. The book takes issue with the statement by some biographers that Grey Owl's imposture was obvious to Indigenous people, pointing out that Anahareo was sure that her husband was, as he claimed, the son of a Scot and an Apache woman, and was surprised to learn the truth after his death. A final chapter on "The Posthumous Image of Grey Owl" considers popular and critical versions of Grey Owl (including the paddling book by Gary and Joanie McGuffin, In the Steps of Grey Owl, and Hap Wilson's Grey Owl and Me) arguing that "Grey Owl is not likely to vanish from contemporary discourse anytime soon" because his life and his writing expose "some major fissures in Canadian society, particularly the still problematic place of Indigenous people in the country."

Misao Dean
Department of English, University of Victoria


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pp. 114-115
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