W. O. Mitchell Essay - Critical Essays

Mitchell, W(illiam) O(rmond)


W(illiam) O(rmond) Mitchell 1914–

Canadian novelist, scriptwriter, dramatist, and short story writer.

Mitchell first became known by his radio series of the 1950s, Jake and the Kid, a warmly humorous serial about a loveable old man, his young companion, and their adventures in a small town in western Canada. Mitchell's subsequent writing reflects his close association with the Canadian landscape, notably the Saskatchewan prairie, and his keen awareness of the sensibility of children and the pleasures of boyhood. Who Has Seen the Wind exemplifies these thematic concerns and is considered by many to be his best work.

Some critics feel that Mitchell's strongest point is his ability to probe deeply into human nature, while others feel that his attempts at seriousness detract from his true talent which is to reveal, humorously, the quirks and foibles of daily life.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Richard Sullivan

["Who Has Seen the Wind"] is a piece of brilliantly sustained prose, a very beautiful, keen, perceptive rendering of human beings engaged in the ordinary yet profoundly—almost mysteriously—meaningful drama of every day.

A quiet, loose, free sort of book, this one is devoted primarily to the experience of its central character, the boy Brian O'Connal. From his fourth to his twelfth year Brian searches—quite unselfconsciously, quite naturally—for God, for purpose, for meaning in the absolute….

But there is no fulfillment for him, no end to his search at the book's end. Indeed there, in a full and self-conscious way, his quest is only beginning. Through the passage of these early years the small child's often shocking directness has gradually turned into the boy's more penetrant awareness;… without the malice of Ahab hunting the whale, but with a fairly comparable urgency….

But because it is a loose, quiet, free sort of book, not so much plotted as ingeniously composed, "Who Has Seen the Wind" ranges frequently away from Brian out over the life of the Canadian prairie town which he inhabits….

And quite as real as any of the human characters, quite as directly a part of the whole effect, is the natural background … of Saskatchewan prairie…. [As] memorable as anything in a genuinely and thoroughly well-done book are some of the renderings of grass and storm and sky, and of the delicately symbolical wind that keeps blowing.

Richard Sullivan, "Canadian Boyhood," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1947 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 23, 1947, p. 5.

Walter Havighurst

This ardent but unsure first novel [Who Has Seen the Wind] portrays a number of people in [a town on a Saskatchewan prairie]…. The story centers about Brian O'Connal and the growing years of his boyhood.

Brian had a curiosity about all sorts of things, from gophers to God. Though he couldn't put it into words, he was especially curious about the cycle of life….

Every street in the town ended in the open prairie, and every moving experience in the boy's life led him to an elusive meaning that he longed to grasp….

Where Brian is concerned this is a seeking book. Like many first novels, it describes the growing pains of youth and the enlarging claims that the mind and heart make on the world….

Probably all the people in the town had some part in Brian's attempt to figure things out. Still, the novel suffers from diffusion…. Certain episodes, like the exploding of Old Ben's still in the church basement during the minister's sermon, are low farce, out of key with the theme of a novel in which the wind is "symbolic of Godhood."

Yet there is freshness and credibility in the O'Connal family…. There is undeniable human nature in some of the townspeople, and there is a haunting quality about gray-eyed young Ben gazing over the prairie….

If this novel is not as good as its material, and as the author's feeling for his people, it may be because the narrative lacks the long, sustained rhythms, the flowing lines, of the prairie itself….

It seems as if the author had not quite decided whether to write a book about a boy's search for significance, or a prairie Winesburg.

Walter Havighurst, "Saskatchewan Prairie," in New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), March 2, 1947, p. 10.

Margaret Laurence

W. O. Mitchell's stories about Jake and the kid began appearing in Maclean's during the war. A great many Canadians must have found them then, as I did, extremely appealing. In the first place, the kid's father was overseas with the South Saskatchewans, and the kid, his mother and Jake, the elderly and loquacious hired man, were keeping the home fires burning. In the second place, these stories were among the first that many of us who lived on the prairies had ever read concerning our own people, our own place and our own time…. A prevalent feeling on the subject was, as I recall—that's us; he's writing about us.

Quite a few years have gone by. The image of the prairie people presented by Mitchell now [in the collected stories, Jake and the Kid,] seems like some blurred recollection of childhood, partially appealing because of its over-simplification, partially repellent for the same reason. I can no longer be convinced that even the genuinely ludicrous aspect of people anywhere was ever as unreservedly warm hearted as the author of Jake and the Kid would have us believe. Here is comedy with no bite of acid to cut the sweet taste. No good person ever comes to harm in Crocus, and the overwhelming majority of citizens are unquestionably good. The few villains such as Sam Bottom and Doc Toovey are truly villainous and are always defeated. (pp. 68-9)

The emotions expressed in these stories,...

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William H. New

In his two novels, The Kite and Who Has Seen the Wind, W. O. Mitchell makes use of [the transition from childhood to maturity] as a means to consider man's awareness of time and perception of reality during his life's span on earth. The two novels explore these questions, however, from different points of view. Though one is an artistic success while the other falls short of this, part of their interest lies in the extent to which they complement each other…. (p. 45)

Mitchell's first novel, Who Has Seen the Wind, is the success. It is a study of the development involved in a boy's increasing conscious awareness of abstraction, a study of Brian O'Connal's transition from the perfection of sensitive childhood, through conflict, to a balance that is achieved in early maturity. In The Kite, which fails largely because of technical difficulties, Keith Maclean is parallel to Brian in many respects, but the author is concerned less with the growth of a child than with the effect of continuing awareness of time on an old man, Daddy Sherry, and the late awareness of the truth of emotional abstractions that comes to the apparently mature David Lang.

Brian O'Connal's growth begins in perfection. He is a child, complete in his own environment, when Who Has Seen the Wind opens; he meets existence from an awareness of self and by sense perception of the material things around him. For the actual growth to take place, however, this state of harmonious innocence must be disrupted, and it is, by the conflict that is aroused in Brian as he is brought into contact with death…. [Each] of the six death scenes in the novel [demonstrates] … Brian's changing reactions—his growth—and the extent to which he transcends age in developing to maturity. (pp. 45-6)

In introducing characters such as the Young Ben or Saint Sammy, who are in some ways the most vividly drawn of all the people in [Who Has Seen the Wind], Mitchell runs the danger of letting his focus shift from the central...

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W. H. New

In 1953, W. O. Mitchell published in serial form a novel called The Alien. It told the story of a part-Blood Indian named Carlyle Sinclair, a teacher at the Paradise Valley Reserve, who after alienating himself from both white and Indian cultures finally accommodates himself to his mixed heritage. In the twenty years since, Mitchell has refashioned that novel into a larger canvas of Alberta society. The Carlyle Sinclair of The Vanishing Point is still a teacher at Paradise Valley, which is now a Stony reserve, but he is also white, a widower, the Indian agent, and more frustrated by his contacts with the people around him than alienated from them.

The result is often very funny. Mitchell's skill at recording speech, demonstrated before now in the Jake and the Kid scripts and in Who Has Seen The Wind, proves itself here again. Laconic, excited, and bawdy voices intertwine, landing the characters in bizarre situations to which laughter, as Carlyle himself reflects, provides the only logical response…. But along the way, life often proves more vicious. Disease, prejudice, ignorance, hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, prostitution, double standards: these are what face the Indians under Carlyle's tutelage. Their efforts to keep self-respect and his own to find it assert an insistent moral dilemma in the book. However entertaining many of the episodes are, the overall effect is one of moral disarray, against which...

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Herbert Rosengarten

The title of W. O. Mitchell's new novel alludes to the pictorial device by which converging lines, meeting at a "vanishing point" on the horizon, create the illusion of depth; and the novel itself is concerned with the lines men draw for themselves and for others in their desire to impose order, purpose, direction, on human life. That this is at best an illusory goal is the conclusion reached by The Vanishing Point, which describes the uneasy relations between an Indian band and white administrators on a reserve in the Albertan foothills. The representative of white authority is Carlyle Sinclair, a thirty-six year old widower who acts as both schoolteacher and agent on the Paradise Valley reserve…. After nine...

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The place, the bald-headed prairie of southern Saskatchewan…. The time, the present … the principal characters, Jake and the Kid. And here, as the first episode in a new series of radio plays by the Canadian writer W. O. Mitchell is the story of the Oldest Old-Timer….

The date was Tuesday, June 27, 1950. And so began the radio series that was to run for six seasons and over two hundred and fifty scripts, and which was to make Crocus, Saskatchewan one of the enduring towns of the Canadian imagination. (p. 33)

The timing of Mitchell's series was apposite. By 1950 Canada's transition from a pioneering and agricultural country to a predominantly industrial and urban one was almost...

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S. Gingell

In studies of Canadian Prairie literature and in surveys of the development and outstanding achievements of Canadian fiction, W. O. Mitchell's novel Who Has Seen the Wind has been uniformly praised for its lyrically evocative style. (p. 221)

There are many passages in the novel that haunt the reader's imagination because of their rhythmic qualities and musical sounds. (p. 222)

The poetry of the prairies is nowhere better captured than in the description of the landscape on the final pages of the book…. The rhyme, alliteration, consonance and assonance, combined with both syntactical structures inverted for heightened rhetorical impact and metrical effects designed to...

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Martin Knelman

Daddy Sherry [is] the hero of W. O. Mitchell's new play The Kite, based on his 1962 novel. Daddy is reputed to be the oldest human being in the world. As his birthday approaches, the media invade his home town in the foothills of Alberta. Daddy Sherry sits on the front porch of his great-great-granddaughter's house, taking it all in but refusing to play the game. He won't conform to the world's idea of how a distinguished ancient should behave. His rambling and bickering infuriate his family, and he embarrasses everyone by refusing to make nice for the TV cameras…. (p. 73)

Much to the consternation of those who hope to capitalize on his longevity, Daddy Sherry announces to the world that...

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Paul Roberts

The story [of How I Spent My Summer Holidays], as you might expect from Mitchell, concerns a distant. rather happy childhood on the south Saskatchewan prairie. It differs from his previous accounts of similar childhoods in the discordant note set at the beginning—bizarre, darkly sexual. We are faced not so much with a story of the loss of innocence, as Mitchell claims, but with the revelation that behind the coyly innocent exteriors he previously depicted are lives torn by sadness, horror, and loss.

The tale revolves around the hero-worshipping relationship between a young boy, Hugh and a war hero, King Motherwell. "King sure was different from Mr. Mackey, or my mother, or any other adult I...

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Mark Abley

[W. O. Mitchell's] first and most famous book, Who Has Seen the Wind, told the story of a sensitive boy growing up in a small Saskatchewan town. Later novels, notably The Kite and The Vanishing Point, explored the larger topics of time and old age. Now, at the age of 67, W. O. Mitchell has returned to the joys and bafflements of childhood, and his admirers will be delighted. A master of prairie fiction is up to his old tricks, and if you have forgotten Holy Rollers, swimming holes in the river or the sweet scent of willow smoke, How I Spent My Summer Holidays will remind you in the happiest possible way. Reading it, you begin to wonder whether this nostalgic string of boyhood escapades...

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Guy Hamel

Mitchell has been much preoccupied with innocence. His sympathies have always attached themselves to those, whether children or not, who are subject to authorities imposed upon them by busybodies and boards, by custom and compact, by men of property and women of probity….

[The] focus of innocence in How I Spent My Summer Holidays is Hugh, who tells his story, and who decides that its proper start is in the summer vacation of his twelfth year. The beginning of summer holidays represents the re-entry into a special temporal dimension. If it is possible to experience eternity, it is here. In their idle days Hugh and his friends conform to the evocative description given by Shakespeare's...

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