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Set in the forties and fifties, these stories take us back to a simpler, gentler world, the one we all like to think we grew up in. The Kid at the centre of the stories is a boy on a Saskatchewan farm “down Government Road from Crocus, which is on the CNR line between Tiger Lily and Conception.” Jake is the hired hand who helps the Kid’s mother run the farm (and who played a huge role in Canadian history, what with capturing “Looie Riel” and all), and who now keeps the Kid abreast of events in the greater world and in Crocus.
This is no easy matter, for the stories reveal that Crocus is a town in constant ferment. The Kid’s teacher, Miss Henchbaw, is unfairly dismissed by the school board until her friends fight back in “Will of the People”; Chet Lambert of the Crocus Breeze is hauled into court for comparing George Solway with Malleable Brown’s goat in “The Face Is Familiar,” resulting in a courtroom confrontation unrivalled in the history of Canadian jurisprudence; and “Political Dynamite” shows the men terrified by women curlers threatening to vote en bloc in the upcoming town election to gain equal curling time.
The town, of course, is rich not only in disputes but characters, from Repeat Golightly in the barbershop (“One ahead of you, Jake. I say there's one ahead of you”) to Old Man Sherry, the town’s Oldest Inhabitant, who wavers between tributes to Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria. Then there’s Old Man Gatenby, brought from death’s door by prolonged exposure to romantic purple prose in “Love’s Wild Magic.”
Adding to this rich mixture are the entertainers who come through town: Belva Taskey, the sweet songstress (“Lo! The Noble Redskin!”) and her memorable poetry reading; The Great Doctor Suhzee, the hypnotist; and Professor Noble Winesinger, whose snake-oil remedies have been known to turn his customers black.
There are also stories of prejudice against Indians, or against “foreigners” named Kiziw, that in the end remind us of the core of decency at the heart of this collection. Whether the stories are told by Jake or by the Kid, they always speak to our hearts, and provide us with W.O. Mitchell's usual magical mixture of tears and laughter.
W.O. Mitchell, the only Canadian author recognizable by initials alone, was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan in 1914. Educated at the University of Manitoba, he lived most of his life in Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Alberta, where for many years he was the most renowned resident in High River. He and his wife, Merna, subsequently moved to Calgary.
During a very varied career Bill Mitchell travelled widely and was everything from a Depression hobo to the fiction editor of Maclean’s. A gifted teacher, he was visiting professor at the University of Windsor for several years, and a creative writing instructor at the Banff Centre for many summers.
His best-loved book is Who Has Seen the Wind. Since its publication in 1947 it has sold over half a million copies in Canada alone, and is hailed as the greatest Canadian book on boyhood. The classic edition, illustrated by William Kurelek, became a bestseller in 1991. Complementing that book is his 1981 best-seller How I Spent My Summer Holidays, hailed by some critics as his finest novel, although Since Daisy Creek (1984) and Ladybug, Ladybug…(1988), Roses Are Difficult Here (1990), For Art's Sake (1992) and The Black Bonspiel of Willie MacCrimmon (1993), illustrated by Wesley W. Bates, were also well-received best-sellers. Besides The Kite (1962) and The Vanishing Point (1973), he was also noted for his two collections of short stories, Jake and the Kid (1962) and According to Jake and the Kid (1989). Based on the legendary CBC radio Series, both classic story collections won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour.
His last book, An Evening with W.O. Mitchell, contains his most popular performance pieces, and concludes with “The Poetry of Life”, the lecture that he delivered from a wheelchair to The Writers’ Union Conference in Winnipeg in 1996.
A noted performer of his own work, W.O. Mitchell recorded cassette versions of both Who Has Seen the Wind and According to Jake and the Kid, while a selection of pieces from An Evening with W.O. Mitchell, performed by W.O., is also available on cassette.
Our novelist and script-writer was also a successful playwright whose five plays are included in the collection entitled Dramatic W.O. Mitchell. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1973, and was an honorary member of the Privy Council. He was the subject of a National Film Board documentary, and in 1994 he was awarded the Writers Guild of Alberta Golden Pen Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 1996 the City of Calgary named its book prize in his honour. He was, in Pierre Berton’s words, “an original.”
W.O. Mitchell died in February 1998 at his home in Calgary.
“Classic Mitchell. Humorous, gentle, wistful.”
“He is the consummate storyteller.”
“His latest collection of short stories is a little jewel.”