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The Farfarers: Before the Norse Paperback – December 1, 1999

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Editorial Reviews

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Farley Mowat's niggling doubts began in the summer of 1966, while he was tooling around the Canadian Arctic aboard a single-engine Otter float plane. The previous year, he had published the influential Westviking, a book that presaged the now widely held opinion that the Norse arrived in North America some 500 years before Columbus. But what Mowat found that summer of '66--troubling evidence that would be buttressed by determined research and field work over the next 30-odd years--convinced him that he had gotten it all wrong. Another group of Europeans, whom Mowat calls the "Albans," beat the Norsemen to the punch by a few hundred years, arriving in North America as they were both fleeing the rapacious Vikings and pursuing precious walrus ivory.

A professional scientist but an amateur anthropologist, Mowat likes to stir the pot--and he does it well, with a combination of scientific rigor, good-natured wit, and old-fashioned storytelling. (It's easy to imagine Mowat as an ideal companion out on the monotonous tundra, spinning endless stories over wine and cigarettes.) Interspersed among discussions of the Albans' culture, ethnography, and use of technology, Mowat's speculations on their trips and travails in fictional "vignettes" fill in the "immense lacunae" in the historical record. But his reasoning is always so sound--and his narrative so captivating--that you'll find it hard not to join Mowat's speculative journey with the Farfarers. --Paul Hughes

From Publishers Weekly

A veteran investigator of early European voyages to North America, Mowat (Westviking) has conjured up a vision of pre-Viking settlement by a people he calls the Albans. Originating in what is now Scotland, Mowat's Albans were displaced in stages between about 700 and 1000 A.D., first to Iceland and Greenland, and finally to the western coast of Newfoundland. The author sees the Albans as driven westward by two forces: the search for valuables such as sealskin and walrus tusk, and the remorseless pressure of Viking raiders. To support his thesis, Mowat presents what scant evidence exists-mainly, stone constructions, like tower beacons and foundations for shelters, which Mowat believes cannot be attributed to the Norse or to native inhabitants of Greenland or Atlantic Canada, and which resemble stonework found in the Orkney Islands. On this basis, Mowat accepts that the Albans existed and sets out to imagine what their migrations were like. Scattered throughout the book in italicized passages are stories set in that era, telling how the Albans might have explored their new surroundings and survived, even prospered, in the Arctic. The Albans lost their separate identity, Mowat believes, by merging into the aboriginal population of Newfoundland. This account rests on informed speculation, as Mowat explicitly acknowledges, and is not intended as a formal exposition of all the evidence for and against the author's thesis. The book is best enjoyed as a richly detailed and imaginative reconstruction of how a long-vanished European people may have been the first of their kind to venture into the New World. Illus. (Feb.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 377 pages
  • Publisher: Steerforth; 1st pbk. ed edition (December 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1883642566
  • ISBN-13: 978-1883642563
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,967,004 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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40 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Charles Nicholson on March 19, 2000
Format: Paperback
Although Farley Mowat's re-interpretation of threads of evidence from such varied literary sources as Caesar's "Conquest of Gaul," Tacitus's "Agricola," and the North Atlantic Viking sagas may never be confirmed by archaeologists, his retelling of those stories makes great reading.
The Farfarers tells the tale of the Albans. It follows their westward migration from their origin in Gaul, from which they are forced to retreat to Scotland by Caesar's armies, through their subsequent movement to the islands of the north Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and finally the coast of North America as they seek both safety from Vikings and other pirates and more favorable hunting grounds for the walrus and seal.
Based upon the scant evidence that remains, the history the Mowat relates of the Albans' exploration and colonization of Iceland, Greenland, and the North American coast seems plausible enough. But even if the evidence ultimately does not support Mowat's conclusions, the story that he weaves is thought-provoking and I found myself fascinated by his interpretation of the events underlying The Greenlander's Saga and the Saga of Eric the Red.
The "historical" chapters in the book are interspersed with Mowat's fictional tales of Alban life. Although entertaining, I found that these fictional stories detracted from the flow of his "historical" account. I was much more interested in Mowat's detailing of the evidence that supports his historical reconstruction of the westward migration of these early Europeans.
Nevertheless, in this year of celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the discovery of America by Leif Ericson, The Farfarers makes especially appropriate reading. I highly recommend it to anyone who has even a passing interest in early northern European history, Vikings, or the discovery of North America.
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42 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Dianne Garnett on January 31, 2000
Format: Paperback
I too had niggling doubts about the Norse being here "first." I am no scholar but I've read a few books over my 40 years. This book is excellent, the amount of research is phenomenal! Intriguing, refreshing, whimsical, and honest. I wish more historians would say "this is how I think it happened..." After all, there is no way any historian can know FOR SURE about anything. History is, as Voltaire said, a pack of tricks we plan upon the dead. I only knocked off a star because I hate having to go to the back of the book for footnotes.
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful By xaosdog on March 25, 2002
Format: Paperback
Farley Mowat is no fan of Received Wisdom.
In 1963 when he published his classic Never Cry Wolf, *everyone* knew that wolves were dangerous, even depraved killers. If it is now widely known that wolves are *not* dangerous to man, that they typically live in close-knit family groups, that they are intelligent, personable animals, it is largely thanks to Mowat, who consented to be dropped, alone, into the Canadian wilds to spend a season in close proximity with wolves in their natural habitat (at a time when experts agreed that to do so meant certain death). Nearly single-handedly, he changed the way the world thought about a species alongside which man has lived for millennia.
Similarly, in 1965 [note, not 1990 as another reviewer here indicates], when he published Westviking, Mowat's examination of the evidence convinced a theretofore skeptical modern generation of the veracity of the Norse claim (in the Vinland Sagas) to have visited the North American continent.
However, his continued examination of the evidence over the subsequent thirty years -- both archeological and literary -- convinced him that the Vinland Sagas told only a *portion* of the story. And, indeed, after reading The Farfarers, I am convinced that once again, where Mowat has led, mainstream scholarship will duly follow, this time to the conclusion that the Greenland Norse did not blaze the trail to Vinland any more than their forebears had blazed the trail to Iceland; in both cases, they followed a pre-Celtic European people Mowat refers to, collectively, as the "Albans."
It should be obvious, since it is largely his own theory that he is debunking, but I should nevertheless note that Mowat is a fact-driven rather than a theory-driven thinker.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Midwest Book Review on September 6, 2000
Format: Paperback
In The Farfarers: Before The Norse, author and historian Farley Mowat asserts that an Indo-European people he calls "The Alban" preceded the Norse discovery of the North American continent by several centuries. The Alban were fleeing the Norse occupation of Scotland, as well as the Shetland and Orkney Islands, and in part, they were in search of walrus ivory as well. Throughout The Farfarers: Before The Norse, iconoclastic historian Mowat skillfully blends fictional vignettes of Alban life into a thoughtful, archaeological and historical records based scholarly reconstruction of a long-forgotten history of death-dealing warships, scanty food supplies, long cold journeys across the treacherous night sea into an unknown land. The Farfarers: Before The Norse is informative, challenging, controversial, entertaining, and thoroughly recommended reading!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on March 26, 2003
Format: Paperback
Few authors match Mowat's finesse at merging history and fiction. An offshoot from his earlier work on the Vikings, this book displaces the Norsemen as the earliest European colonists of North America. Mowat's expressive talents are given free rein to question consensus history and propose a new thesis - even before the Norsemen, Scottish exiles reached this continent long ago. Mowat is quick to assert his ideas are speculative. He offers good evidence that he's seen directly or researched. The force of his narrative skills submerge that disclaimer almost to obscurity as he presents a mixture of fact and fantasy throughout this book. It's a rewarding read, and the validity of his conjecture may be deferred until you close the final page.
Mowat's speculation on Scot explorers reaching the New World begins with a stone ruin in the Canadian Arctic. The unusual shape indicates the roofing material was a large boat. Houses of this oblong form can still be found in the outer islands of Scotland. As Mowat notes, the technique is testimony to efficient use and durability of the materials. The early people of Western Europe and the British Isles built long-lasting boats using a strong wood frame and easily replaceable skins. Strong and seaworthy, they put to sea in these boats for distant voyages. More distant, in Mowat's view, than we've previously conceived.

He proposes that settlements dotted the Eastern Arctic and along the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. The communities were founded by the descendents of the "valuta men" who first sought walrus tusks. The ivory was valuable and found ready markets. But the walrus herds died out or moved elsewhere. Meanwhile, population shifts in Europe put pressure on the home communities of these voyagers.
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