When W.O. Mitchell died in 1998 he was described as “Canada's best-loved writer.” Every commentator agreed that his best – and his best-loved – book was Who Has Seen the Wind. Since it was first published in 1947, this book has sold almost a million copies in Canada.
As we enter the world of four-year-old Brian O’Connal, his father the druggist, his Uncle Sean, his mother, and his formidable Scotch grandmother (“she belshes…a lot”), it soon becomes clear that this is no ordinary book. As we watch Brian grow up, the prairie and its surprising inhabitants like the Ben and Saint Sammy – and the rich variety of small-town characters – become unforgettable. This book will be a delightful surprise for all those who are aware of it, but have never quite got around to reading it, till now.
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.
Orm Mitchell is a Professor of English at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. Barbara Mitchell taught at Trent for a number of years and is now a freelance writer. They have published articles on Canadian literature, on biography, and on W.O. Mitchell.
“One of the finest Canadian novels ever written.”
–Globe and Mail
“Mitchell…has so thoroughly captured the feeling of Canada and the Canadian people that we feel repeated shock of recognition as we read.”