Obituary

Prairie godfather

SHARON BUTALA March 9 1998
Obituary

Prairie godfather

SHARON BUTALA March 9 1998

Prairie godfather

Obituary

SHARON BUTALA

Here was the least common denominator of nature, the skeleton requirements simply, of land and sky—Saskatchewan prairie.

—from Who Has Seen the Wind

William Ormond Mitchell, who in his first novel penned perhaps the most-quoted opening line in Canadian literature, died last week in his Calgary home after a long struggle with prostate cancer. Over his 60-plus years of writing, teaching and storytelling, he had become so familiar to Canadians that he was known across the country simply as “W.O.” Mitchell, who wrote eight novels, published Who Has Seen the Wind in 1947 when he was 33. Using the prairie he had known as a child around his birthplace of Weyburn, Sask., to stand in for the great mystery of life, and the constant prairie wind as a symbol for God, with stunning effect he matched a small child’s innocent heart to the land’s immensity. Combining insight with a great gift for humor, Mitchell created a masterpiece in Who Has Seen the Wind, which remains the great Canadian novel of boyhood.

But it was his more than 300 scripts of Jake and the Kid, broadcast on CBC Radio between 1950 and 1958—a time when outside of cities radio was the chief source of entertainment—that spread his fame beyond the literati to those who had never read his novels and pos-

Sharon Butala is the Nipawin, Sask.-born, award-winning author of The Fourth Archangel and The Perfection of Morning. She currently lives on a ranch in Eastend, Sask.

sibly never would. “It’s enough to give a gopher the heartburn” sounded sufficiently like something an untutored dirt farmer might say in exasperation, or ought to say, that this and phrases like it delighted urban listeners—but also endeared Mitchell to those who had spent their lives in the proximity of the much-cursed gophers. It was an effect only an artist could find in the frequently heartbreaking reality of life on the southern plains of Canada, and in the hearts of its people, who were and are more sophisticated, although less charming, than Mitchell’s Jake and the Kid characters. He had put his finger on something about their lives that no one else had, and the scripts—polished, forthright, very funny, sometimes politically daring, although occasionally hokey—rapidly moved the show and its author to the forefront of Canadian popular culture. JakeTrumper and the unnamed Kid became part of Canadian self-definition.

It would seem, however, that theatre was Mitchell’s first love. In the early 1930s, he studied playwriting at the University of Washington, then spent three years (1934-1936) in Seattle writing newspaper copy as well as plays, and acting for the Penthouse Players. He relished giving performances of his work—he was often compared to writer-raconteurs Stephen Leacock and Mark Twain—and with his trademark tousled white hair, his distinctive voice and his considerable gifts as an actor, he gave masterful performances that widened his already broad audience.

If his fans tended to confuse him with Jake Trumper, and if Billy Mitchell, as he sometimes rather touchingly referred to himself, was perhaps a trifle confused himself as to who he was, he was nonetheless not the Prairie bumpkin or cracker-barrel philosopher he played on the stage. Most associated with the prairie, he spent much more of his life closer to the Alberta foothills—he lived in High River off

and on for 20 years, and then in Calgary for many more—than to the prairie of his first and best-remembered novel.

Nor had he experienced the poverty many Prairie people of his time lived in. He was the son of a prosperous pharmacist, and his childhood home, which still stands, was a substantial three-storey house with fireplaces and oak staircases, a long way from the weather-leaky shelters most Prairie dwellers of his age inhabited. And before he left his parental home, his horizons had been widened by travel. The bovine tuberculosis that he had contracted at the age of 12 forced his widowed mother to take him and his three brothers first to Long Beach, Calif., to live for a year and then to St. Petersburg, Fla., where he completed his last three years of high school. As a young man, he left the University of Manitoba to travel, working as a galley boy on a Greek freighter, then hitchhiking around Europe, doing odd jobs, including a stint lifeguarding in Biarritz, France. He returned to Edmonton to complete his education in 1942 at the University of Alberta.

It may have been the devastating loss of his father when he was only 7 that caused him to hang on to the essence of boyhood. There remained always a boyishness about him, and in his work the theme of childhood and lost innocence was a constant one.

Brian in Who Has Seen the Wind and Hugh in How I Spent My Summer Holidays are powerful, accurate portraits of the intense, wonder-filled world of childhood. In many of his novels, the most fully fleshed relationships are those between men, and in several the mentorstudent relationship between an older man and a young man or boy is central to the story. While his male characters are often happily married to wives to whom they are devoted (Mitchell was wed for more than 55 years to Mema Hirtle, who survives him and with whom he had three children), his female characters are never fully drawn.

Community was also a constant theme, but in the small western towns where he set many of his stories he did not ignore or sentimentalize the darker undertow of violence, abysmal poverty and the injustices perpetrated on the outcasts such communities inevitably create. At the same time, he never lost the childlike capacity for awe, and always, just beyond the town, was the great mystery and beauty of wilderness that he celebrated in his work as a route to God.

Mitchell received many honors over his 60-year career: member of the Privy Council in 1992, officer of the Order of Canada in 1973, Chalmers Award for his play Back to Beulah in 1975, Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 1962 and 1990. The Jake and the Kid radio scripts, some of which first appeared as short stories, were said by writer Margaret Laurence to be “among the first that many of us who lived on the Prairies had ever read concerning our own people, our own place and time.” With the publication of The Vanishing Point in 1973, critic Dick Harrison noted that Mitchell became the first writer of Prairie fiction to explore the native perspective. In the Stoney Indian character of Archie Nicotine, he created one of Canlit’s most memorable figures. And in a country whose literature is short on comedy,

Writer and humorist W. O. Mitchell was a Canadian original

he was one of our most successful humorists, working to integrate a comedic view of life with a more tragic perspective (a rare ability for which he was often dismissed by certain critics). Although he had worked on a farm for only a short time in the ’30s, he wrote knowledgeably about agriculture: as early as 1947 in Who Has Seen the Wind, chastising farmers for failing to farm in a conservation-minded way.

He was also a gifted teacher and a guiding light; an instructor for many summers at the Banff Centre for the Arts, he initiated an influential approach to writing called “free fall.” He was fiction editor at Maclean’s from 1948 to 1951; after that, he served as writer in residence at universities in Calgary, Edmonton, Peterborough, Toronto and, for eight years, Windsor. During the 1997 PanCanadian WordFest in Calgary, at a special tribute to him that he was too ill to attend, the $15,000 W. O. Mitchell Literary Prize was announced. Most fitting is the guideline that requires candidates to have been effective mentors to other writers, since Mitchell, who had taught scores of writers, had earlier benefited greatly himself from the mentorship of a writing professor at the University of Alberta, E M. Salter.

For many western fans, he was someone who had lived as they did, who remembered their childhoods for them, who called up the funny stories, the misadventures, the loyalties, the sights and sounds and smells of spring on the prairie at a level they recognized, bringing to conscious awareness their joy and great good fortune in being Prairie people. In writing about them, he validated their lives. (In fact, Mitchell thought his urge to write had something to do with the amount of time he had spent alone on the prairie instead of in school as a sickly child.)

Ironically, that famous first line was almost deleted by his American editor, along with the roughly 7,000 other words he persuaded Mitchell to let go from the first Canadian edition. In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of its first publication, in a measure demonstrating how valued Who Has Seen the Wind remains, Macmillan reissued it with all the expunged text restored.

Who Has Seen the Wind cast a long shadow. Although many of his novels were commercial successes—five (including Who Has Seen The Wind) were best-sellers—it is probably an accurate judgment that he never again achieved the brilliance of his first novel. But The Vanishing Point, How I Spent My Summer Holidays and Roses Are Difficult Here are all complex, original and funny novels, all containing passages of power and beauty, all reaffirming human decency, speaking up fearlessly for the weak, the impoverished and the powerless, and all castigating the life-denying, controlling people of Calvinist temperament who ran the places where he grew up (or in later novels, the universities).

If he had never written Who Has Seen the Wind, he would still be a novelist of stature, much-admired and honored, especially in the West. If he had written it last instead of first, we would mention his name solemnly in the company of the world’s great writers. Whatever the case, he was, in the end, as much a symbol of the West as the meadowlark and the wind, and a Canadian original. □