Books

W.O. and the winds of mortality

Loss was a recurring theme for a revered writer

Brian Bergman October 25 1999
Books

W.O. and the winds of mortality

Loss was a recurring theme for a revered writer

Brian Bergman October 25 1999

W.O. and the winds of mortality

Books

Loss was a recurring theme for a revered writer

Brian Bergman

On a Sunday afternoon in May, 1922, W.O. Mitchell and his brother Bobbie drove with their mother, Margaret, to a windswept cemetery six miles south of Weyburn, Sask. One year earlier, when Mitchell was just seven years old, his father, Ormond, had died following a gall bladder operation. As he stood by his fathers grave site, Mitchell looked up at his mother and saw the tears streaming down her face. “And that’s when I knew death,” Mitchell recalled many years later, “that it was a step that could not be retrieved or taken again. That there were things that happened to humans, that there was no turning back.” In their newly published biography, W. O.: The Life of W O. Mitchell (McClelland & Stewart, $37.50), coauthors Barbara and Ormond Mitchell open with this moving vignette. And for good reason: not only did Mitchell faithfully re-create the cemetery scene in his classic first novel, Who Has Seen the Wind, but the themes of fatherless children and early intimations of mor-

tality are ones that recur time and again in a distinguished 50-year literary career that spawned eight novels, three shortstory collections and six plays. For Mitchell, who died at the age of 83 in 1998 after a lengthy batde with cancer, the sense of man’s finiteness was rooted as much in place as in time. The Canadian Prairies, his biographers note, offered a landscape of absence that mirrored the loss of his father—and yet stood above it. Or as Mitchell himself wrote in his inaugural novel: “People were forever born, people forever died, and never were again. Fathers died and sons were born; the prairie was forever, with its wind whispering through the long, dead grasses, through the long and endless silence.”

W O. is the first part of a two-volume biography. Ormond Mitchell is the late novelist’s 56-year-old son, named for his grandfather, who is a professor of English at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.; Ormond’s wife, Barbara, 55, is a former academic who now works as a freelance writer. Their book recounts Mitchell’s life from his 1914

birth in Weyburn through to the publication of Who Has Seen the Wind in 1947. While the truncated format—the second volume isn’t due until 2001—denies the reader the full sweep of the man’s life, there is, in Mitchell’s case, a certain logic in concentrating so much on his formative years. Mitchell believed that between the ages of 5 and 12, a child passes through what he called “the litmus years,” a period that indelibly stamps the adult—and the artist. By mining his early life, W O. apdy foreshadows the man who would become one of Canada’s first true literary celebrities.

William Ormond (Bill) Mitchell grew up the second oldest in a family of four boys whose parents were a study in contrasts. His mother was a prim Scots Presbyterian; Mitchell’s chief memories of her revolve around discipline and denial of material pleasures like a new bicycle. His father, who was of Irish descent, came from what Mitchell described as “a family of yappers,” and was far more easygoing—and outgoing. Ormond Mitchell was a pharmacist, but also a professional reciter of verse; his business card described him as both a “druggist” and an “entertainer.” He instilled in young Bill a love of reading: Ormond’s home library was rife with Shakespeare, Twain and Dickens.

By Weyburn standards, the Mitchells were prosperous. Their three-storey house towered above their neighbours’ homes on 6th Street, and they could afford servants. Mitchell grew up only a block away from untamed prairie, which became his playground and eventually his inspiration. At the age of 12, he was taken out of school for almost a year because of a swollen wrist, which he only later learned was the result of bovine tuberculosis. His wrist was fitted with an aluminum brace, and he had to curtail many physical activities. For

much of the day, Mitchell later recalled, “I was the only child alive on 6th Street, in Weyburn, in Saskatchewan, or in the world, and I used to wander into the prairie a great deal alone.” The experience made him a careful observer of life. It also, Mitchell believed, turned him into a writer.

During his adolescent years, Mitchell displayed a curious mix of introspection and exhibitionism. Friends from those days recall him as shy and retiring.

He was also self-conscious about his appearance: in addition to the wrist brace, he wore hornrimmed glasses to correct a lazy left eye. He was, in his own words, a “spectacled wishbone of a child with the stage presence of an introverted chameleon.” Yet, at his mother’s prodding, Mitchell took elocution lessons and discovered that, like his father, he had the gift of public gab. He became an acrobat and thrived on being the centre of attention. “I was a performing elephant,” he once said, “a smart-ass.”

Mitchell carried these contradictory traits with him throughout his life. Beginning in the 1960s, he became well-known for his often hilarious public readings and folksy television interviews. “He perfected a kind of public pose,” Barbara Mitchell told Macleans last week. “He loved to perform before an audience and needed that feedback.” Ormond adds that his father was “a wonderful storyteller; the meals at our house were very loud and lively.” But he also needed solitude. “I remember as a child, he taught me to fly-fish and duck hunt,” says Ormond. “Often, there were these very long introspective moments when we would disappear into our own thoughts.”

Mitchell discovered he wanted to be a writer after keeping a diary of a vagabond summer trip through Europe in 1933. During the Depression years, he continued to write short stories— none was published—while supporting himself with odd jobs, including stints as a farmhand and a travelling encyclopedia salesman. These were lean times for Mitchell; he sometimes went up to

Mining his own life in his work, W O. cherished the motto: ‘Every bit’s the truth, but the whole thing’s a creative lie’

three days without eating. They also presaged what would be a lifelong struggle: his desire to produce serious fiction versus the need to make a living.

An early Mitchell short story—one that later formed part of Who Has Seen the Wind—was submitted to Macleans in 1941. The magazines fiction editor rejected the piece because it dealt too much with “human afflictions” (one character had a club foot and another a cockeye). But Macleans soon became the publisher of one of Mitchells most beloved creations—the Jake and the Kid series, which revolves around a fatherless Saskatchewan boy and the hired hand with a penchant for tall tales who befriends him. The first of those stories appeared on Aug. 15, 1942—the same day Mitchell married the former Merna Hirtle, his wife for 56 years, the mother of his three children and, as he described her, “my first editor.”

But Mitchell’s true literary breakthrough came five years later with the publication of Who Has Seen the Wind. As his biographers document, it is an astonishingly autobiographical piece of work, telling the story of prepubescent Brian, a small-town Saskatchewan boy who lost his father after a gall bladder operation and who searches for signs of God on the prairies. In later fiction, Mitchell continued to mine his own life, often barely bothering to disguise

the names of real people. One of his favourite mottos: “Every bit’s the truth, but the whole thing’s a creative lie.” Who Has Seen the Wind received rave reviews in both Canada and the United States, but enjoyed only modest sales. Over the years, though, it became a publishing sensation, logging worldwide sales of more than 750,000. Many critics assert that Mitchell never again matched the power of his first novel and lamented his sporadic literary output, which was in part due to the demands of supporting a young family. After CBC Radio serialized the Jake and the Kid stories to popular acclaim in the 1950s, Mitchell headed out on the lecture circuit—and soon became more famous for being famous than for what he actually wrote. He sometimes bridled at the stereotypes that dogged him. “He used to call Jake and the Kid his albatross,” Ormond told Macleans. “He got very frustrated about being seen as this corncob humorist from the Prairies.”

Those later years will be the stuff of the final volume of the biography— gleaned, in part, from 14 years of intimate interviews with WO. and Merna Mitchell prior to their respective deaths in 1998. Near the end, W O. turned to his daughter-in-law Barbara and said: “I’ve had a pretty interesting life, haven’t I?” Every bit the truth, and no part a lie. C¡]