Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 848
William Ormond Mitchell grew up on the edge of the Canadian prairies in a small town of about five thousand inhabitants. His father, the town’s druggist, died suddenly in 1921, when Mitchell was seven years old. This sparked an early preoccupation in the boy with the theme of mortality, a theme that later surfaced in much of his writing. When he was twelve years old Mitchell contracted bovine tuberculosis of the wrist and was advised to move to a warmer climate. The family thereupon moved first to California, then to St. Petersburg, Florida. Here Mitchell attended high school and discovered his interest in drama.
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He enrolled at the University of Manitoba in 1931 to study medicine, but his education was interrupted by a recurrence of problems with his wrist. For the next several years Mitchell traveled widely, holding a variety of odd jobs along the way. While working for the Seattle Times, he became active in a local theater, honing skills that later served him well both as a writer and as a public reader of his writings. By 1940 he was back at the university to finish his education. A course in creative writing under F. M. Salter proved especially influential. In fact, Mitchell’s first book, Who Has Seen the Wind, was written partly under Salter’s guidance.
Mitchell married, taught for several years, and at the same time began to get his stories published in such magazines as Maclean’s Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly. After the successful appearance of his first novel, Mitchell moved to Toronto as fiction editor for Maclean’s. Finding himself increasingly involved in radio, television, and journalistic work, he decided to move back to his home in High River, Alberta, to devote more time to writing. He stayed there for seventeen years, raising a family and writing weekly scripts for the popular Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) radio series Jake and the Kid. In 1961 he turned these scripts into two collections of short fiction, and a year later he published his second novel, The Kite. Writing had become a formidable struggle, however, and in 1968 Mitchell began to teach as writer-in-residence at various Canadian universities. Teaching became a recurrent theme in his writings which, in the succeeding decades, included plays and six more novels.
The quest for the meaning of human existence runs through nearly all of Mitchell’s fiction. It is introduced in Who Has Seen the Wind through Brian O’Connal, a young boy from a prairie town who grows from the innocence of childhood to confusion and conflict and toward the maturity of acceptance, and from ignorance about God, life, death, and nature to a dawning understanding of these things through his growing affinity with the prairie and its permanence. In this work Mitchell maintains a skillful balance between the weightiness of a serious theme and the ambiguous delights of sensitive childhood, between the demands of form and substance.
Rarely did Mitchell manage to exceed or even duplicate his first success. The selection of short stories from the radio series, Jake and the Kid, focus more or less on the moral and imaginative education of the kid, and though often highly entertaining, these stories suffer from excess, sentimentality, and moralism. The same tendencies mar The Kite. Its theme links it to Who Has Seen the Wind, the discovery and acceptance of one’s own mortality, but here Mitchell allowed the focus to wander and didacticism to creep in. David Sherry, the 111-year-old embodiment of the irrepressible life force, though not the intended central character, becomes by far the most interesting and is allowed to dominate the novel. In The Vanishing Point the focus is on Carlyle Sinclair and his journey toward wholeness through his experiences on a Native American reservation and his acceptance of Indian culture. Featuring an extraordinary array of colorful characters and voices, the novel is ambitious and provocative, but some critics have thought that it lacks consistent artistic control.
The 1980’s were a productive time for Mitchell. His most autobiographical novel, How I Spent My Summer Holidays, returns to the world of prairie boyhood and the unfulfilled need for healing among the demoniac that destroy innocence. In Since Daisy Creek and Ladybug, Ladybug . . . , Mitchell shifts to a gentler examination of his themes through older protagonists. Here he shows how the denial of mortality and the preoccupation with self lead to alienation, and that to accept death is to affirm life, both individual and communal. Critical reception of Mitchell’s next works—Roses Are Difficult Here and For Art’s Sake—was generally unfavorable.
Alhough Mitchell’s writing is uneven, his works consistently throb with energy and exuberance. They feature tall tales, strong language and eccentric characters, and always reach for important truths about the nature and the needs of the human spirit. He endeared himself to his readers not only as a writer but also as a charismatic public persona through frequent television appearances and stage readings. Later in life he was honored with the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humor, many honorary degrees, and the Order of Canada.