In 1947, with the publication of his first novel Who Has Seen the Wind,
first came to the attention of the Canadian public. The qualities which
made this novel a classic also mark Mitchell's other works. The reviewer
in the Montreal Gazette describes the immediate response to this
new literary work:
For many contemporary writers, such as Rudy Wiebe, Robert Kroetsch and Eli Mandel, W.O.Mitchell was the first to establish a literary geography of the West. Margaret Laurence recalls in the forties reading the early Jake and the Kid stories in Maclean's: "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....[We felt] that's us; he's writing about us". In these stories and the radio dramas to follow, in the five published novels and six stage plays, Mitchell has captured the landscape and peoples, the realities and myths of the prairies and foothills and has invested them with universal significance. Like Hardy's Wessex, Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and Twain's Mississippi, Mitchell's country is at once specific in flavour and timeless in its vision of human needs and possibilities.
Mitchell's choice of this particular locale was determined by the decision of his parents to come West and to settle in the District of Assiniboia. Graham Greene has remarked: "The creative writer perceives his world once and for all in childhood and adolescence, and his whole career is an effort to illustrate his private world in terms of the great public world we all share". It was, however, the classic advice of his literary mentor, Professor F.M. Salter, to write out of his own place and time which led Mitchell to go back, to explore the ambivalence of his relationship with the small prairie town and the Saskatchewan landscape where he grew up.
In 1903, Ormond Skinner Mitchell left his flourishing pharmacy in Hamilton, Ontario, and came West to the little town of Weyburn to open a drug store. Here he met Margaret McMurray who had emigrated several years before from Huron County, Ontario, and the couple were married in January of 1907. A first son Jack was born in December of that year; William Ormond was born on March 13, 1914, and two younger brothers, Robert and Richard, in the succeeding four years. While it was the choice of his parents which established the locale of his writing, another circumstance was almost as central in determining his outlook on life. In April of 1921 Ormond Mitchell died of complications attending surgery for a diseased gall bladder. The impact of this death can be seen throughout Mitchell's work where many of the children are fatherless and the drama of life is played against the ultimate knowledge of death. Margaret Mitchell remained in Weyburn to raise her three younger sons, assisted by Jack who was thirteen and the surrounding family of Mitchells and McMurrays.
Out of this rich material, Mitchell created his literary towns. The geography of Weyburn is reproduced to some extent in Who Has Seen the Wind, the radio series Jake and the Kid, and the novel How I Spent My Summer Holidays. Mitchell, like Brian O'Connal, lived in a three-storey house two short blocks from open prairie. Haig School is described here as well as in The Vanishing Point and How I Spent My Summer Holidays. Five miles south of town on Government Road lived Mitchell's uncle Jim, who becomes Uncle Sean and is one source for the hired man Jake in Jake and the Kid. This is the farm depicted in the radio series as belonging to Ma and the Kid. Another prominent feature of the town, the Provincial Mental Hospital which opened in 1922, also provided Mitchell with fictional material for the three mad women of the play Back to Beulah(1973) and the tragic characters of Blind Jesus and Billy the Sheepherder in How I Spent My Summer Holidays.
A second major turning-point in Mitchell's life occurred in 1928 when a fall in the school gymnasium led to tuberculosis of the bone. For several months Mitchell was out of school; this and the brace he was to wear on his wrist for the next few years set him apart from other children and developed further his tendency to introspection. A Winnipeg doctor advised a warmer climate and Mrs. Mitchell took the three younger boys first to Long Beach, California, in the Winter of 1928/29 and then to St. Petersburg, Florida, for the following three years. Here Mitchell attended St. Petersburg High School whose population numbered 1,000 students, a new experience for a boy from a small prairie town of 6,000 people. While he has written very little of this period of his life to date, it developed his "tropical corpuscles", a love for sun and humidity in place of the harsh prairie winters. He also became aware of being Canadian, a sense of a nationality which underlies all his writings.
During the next three years, several experiences would become significant for his future development as novelist and playwright. He took elocution lessons at Madame Wilkinson's School of Music which he transformed into "Madame Brocklehurst's School of Dance, Drama and Elocution" in the comic sketch "How I Spoke for Lincoln". He assisted with the school newspaper and magazine and was a member of the swimming team. He would later win awards for diving and even obtain a brief position as circus high diver in the thirties. It was Emily Murray, the English teacher, however, who shaped Mitchell's interest in English literature and to her he attributes the desire to become a writer. She taught a course in debating in which Mitchell learned techniques of presentation, rhythm and delivery which he would employ in his later career as an actor and as a writer of plays. In March 1931 she directed the Senior play, Skidding by Auranie Rouveral, in which Mitchell played the star role. The St. Petersburg Times reported: "From the opening curtain Bill Mitchell captivated the audience with his portrayal...and many said he stole the show".
In June 1931, following his graduation, Mitchell returned with his family to Weyburn. In September he registered in Science at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, then the third largest university in Canada. He originally enrolled in pre-medicine but because of problems in the laboratory with his wrist, he transferred in his second year to Arts and majored in Psychology and Philosophy. His most influential teacher was the Head of Department and noted scholar Rupert Clandon Lodge who, he has remarked, "introduced me to the excitement of the enquiring mind...helped me to discover, philosophically speaking, I am an idealist".
During these three years, Mitchell came into contact with a number of people who would later become noted in a variety of fields. Fellow students were William L. Morton, the historian, Stanley Knowles and Marshall McLuhan. Mitchell played a part in the Science Play, "The Grand Cham's Diamonds" by Alan Monkhouse, and here he met Tommy Tweed, the Assistant Director, later a noted writer and actor for the CBC who would play several roles in Mitchell's Jake series. The following year, Tweed left the University to join the Winnipeg Little Theatre under the direction of John Craig and his wife, and persuaded Mitchell to participate also. In his third year, Mitchell debated for the Senior Arts Team and won a victory by defeating the proposal "that no censorship would be preferable to that now in force". He also published his first piece of writing in 'Toba, the new Arts Council Magazine. "Panacea for Panhandlers" appeared in three issues from November 1933 to March 1934; here he described his experiences in the Summer of 1933 when he shipped aboard a Greek steamer out of Quebec and toured France, Austria and Italy. A short introduction explains that these adventures helped him in "seeing a new pattern of familiar things".
In May 1934, the height of the Depression in the West, Mitchell returned to Weyburn without completing his degree and shortly after left for Seattle where he planned to ship out to South America. As a result of a strike, he remained in Seattle and spent over a year doing odd jobs such as gardening, selling advertising for the Seattle Times, selling insurance and reporting. He also took courses in writing drama from Professor Glenn Hughes of the University of Washington. From 1936 to 1939 he lived in Calgary; again he sold insurance and assisted with the newspaper the Calgary Herald.
By the Summer of 1940 Mitchell was in Edmonton. He met Merna Hirtle, daughter of a Baptist minister, and decided to return to university in the Fall where he enrolled in Arts with courses predominantly in English literature. In these years he had already decided to become a writer and took very little part in campus activities. However, in the Spring of 1941 he played a role in James Bridie's play What Say They, cast as the Irish porter-cum-poet, with Merna as his secretary-niece. During this period, friends indicate that he was concentrating seriously on writing. Through Merna he met Professor F.M. Salter in the Fall of 1940 and joined his writing class, a course recommended for students in Education who wanted to gain a good grasp of style. Each student wrote about 2,500 words each week; the classes were loosely structured, sometimes discussing matters of expression, grammar and technique and sometimes analyzing student work. As mentor, Salter taught him not only where to look for his material but how to judge his own work objectively.
The next several years were critical for Mitchell's development as a professional writer. 1942 was perhaps the most memorable of these years. In the Summer Mitchell completed the Certificate Programme of the Faculty of Education and took a position as teacher and principal of a school in Castor, northeast of Red Deer. In August he married Merna Hirtle. And between May and September his first three short stories were published, "But as Yesterday" in Queen's Quarterly and the first Jake and the Kid stories "You Gotta Teeter" and "Elbow Room" in Maclean's. The following year, the Mitchells and their infant son Ormond moved to New Dayton, southeast of Lethbridge, where again Mitchell was teacher-principal. During this period, Mitchell went to High River as a freelance writer for Maclean's to interview Hughena McCorquodale, editor of the High River Times, and decided to settle there. He resigned as a teacher and made plans to support his family on his income as a writer and journalist. During the Winter and Spring of 1944/45, they lived first with Mrs. Mitchell in Weyburn and then with Merna's parents in Edmonton where Mitchell had an opportunity to complete the first draft of Who Has Seen the Wind. In April 1945 they moved to a rented house in High River, and in June the novel was completed in second draft and given its final title. It was accepted in March 1946 by Macmillan's of Canada and shortly after by Atlantic Little-Brown of Boston, and appeared in the bookstores in February 1947.
The genesis of Who Has Seen the Wind, Mitchell has explained,
occurred in the office of F.M.
Salter. Mitchell had submitted twenty pages of rough material, what
he would later term "free fall"
or "loose recall". Of these Salter selected two or three pages which described
Mitchell's visit as a child of ten to the cemetery and his father's grave.
Salter's reaction was spontaneous and exciting. He asked to know more
about the boy and the situation and so Brian Sean MacMurray O'Connal was
born. In the preface Mitchell indicated the central themes of the novel
which Salter felt might be missed by the reader:
While this happy ending has been criticized as contrived and artificial, Who Has Seen the Wind is not a simple book. Mitchell recreates for us the beauty and force of the prairies which surround the town, their strength and power. The wind is ever-present, sometimes symbolizing freedom as identified with the young Ben and sometimes personifying God. The most colourful characters in the novel are the eccentrics: Brian's Uncle Sean, the lusty and ever-drunk Ben and the madman Saint Sammy. Mitchell does not turn away from tragedy nor is he complacent about religion. Artie's torture of the terrified gopher by twisting off its tail is an example of human sadism and the Young Ben's killing of it is merciful. But while the rapid propagation of Fat's rabbits from two to 123 is understandable in terms of the human intervention in the natural cycle, the necessity of destroying all by drowning is a shock to the young boy, as is the birth and death of the two-headed calf. Brian's comment "God isn't very considerate - is He, Gramma?" applies as well to the premature death of his father. We see justice served when Saint Sammy's God in vengeance strikes down the fields of Bent Candy, Deacon of the Baptist Church, who has lusted after Sammy's prize horses. There is justice as well in the defeat of Mrs. Abercrombie and the release of the Young Ben from the restricting environment of the school. But there is no retribution for the persecution of The China Kids and the suicide of their father. The final pages, the turning of the cycle from day to night, Summer to Winter and life to death, poses the ultimate question that man must face in this alien world. And there can be no answer. Like Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and the best "popular" literature, Who Has Seen the Wind is both accessible and universal.
Advance publicity was strong; by March the novel had sold nearly 2,000 copies and by September, over 4,500. It would be re-published in a school edition in 1956, in paperback in many editions from 1960 on, and adapted to movie form in 1977. In 1949 Mitchell produced his first radio play "The Devil's Instrument". It dramatized the conflict of a Hutterite boy between his religious commitment to his community and his love of music, in the form of a mouth organ.
Meanwhile, in 1946 Mitchell had started to work on The Alien, a more ambitious project which would be more closely autobiographical. He continued on this novel for several years. During this period, the work was interrupted by the Mitchells' move to Toronto where they lived from 1948 to 1951 while Mitchell was Fiction Editor of Maclean's. Macmillan's received Part I of the novel in May 1950; by February 1952 the revision was in progress and Merna wrote of their excitement over its "humour, pathos and wonderful atmosphere". A new Part I and Part III reached the publishers by November 1952 and Part II in the following Spring. The manuscript was some 900 pages long and contained over 200,000 words. Both Mitchell and Macmillan's had high expectations for the book and both were very pleased when it received the Maclean's Fiction Award for 1953. An abbreviated version of Part III was published in that magazine in nine instalments between November 1953 and January 1954; this was the only version of the novel to be published.
Some sections of The Alien will be familiar to readers of The Vanishing Point, published in 1973 after many years of recasting. The central character is also named Carlyle Sinclair, and a major setting, the Indian Reserve of Paradise Valley, a fictional version of the Eden Valley Reserve west of High River. But there are many significant differences. In the earlier version Carlyle himself is the "the alien" of the title: as the son of a doctor and a part Indian mother, he is unable to cope with the tensions which result, first in his marriage and then in the birth of his second child who inherits dark colouring and Indian features. The Alien also incorporates some of Mitchell's own experiences at the universities of Manitoba and Alberta and as a teacher in small towns. Part I looks at Carlyle's university career, his desire to be accepted in the men's fraternity and his courting of Grace. Part II depicts his teaching career in the town of Shelby, the birth of a son and daughter, and the submerged rivalry with the Indian character Rory Napoleon. Part III is the familiar version with the setting on the Reserve and Carlyle's involvement with the young Indian girl Victoria Rider. In one draft, Carlyle, overcome by his broken marriage and the complications of Victoria's rejection of a career and her pregnancy, commits suicide.
John Gray of Macmillan's was initially enthusiastic about The Alien, but Mitchell's agent in New York failed to place the work with an American or British publisher and Toronto was unwilling to publish alone. For the next six or seven years, Mitchell worked on versions of the novel. He finally put it aside, discouraged with the lack of response and with the pessimism of what seemed the only possible ending.
These years, however, were not unproductive despite the frustrations of this work. On the contrary, the fifties were among the richest and most productive of Mitchell's years and generated material which he is still developing today. Mitchell had sold a number of Jake and the Kid stories to Maclean's from 1942 on. He had also, very early, envisioned the possibility of a radio series and a sequence of scripts but Maclean's were not encouraging: they wanted the stories themselves to promote sales and they suggested to Mitchell that he should develop his ideas and characters more fully before venturing into a new medium. The radio series took form in 1950 and on Tuesday, June 27, "The Oldest Old-Timer" was broadcast, the first of some one hundred and fifty episodes to run for six seasons. By this first show, the shape of the series was established and the central characters, the geography of the town and the main conflicts clear.
The program was immediately popular with audiences across Canada and every Tuesday, and later Sunday, people across the breadth of the nation tuned in to hear the adventures of the mythical inhabitants of Crocus, Saskatchewan. The scripts are of interest historically for their capture of the changing face of the Canadian West, where the span from the earliest settlements to a modern sophisticated society was within living memory. The series juxtaposes the old rhythms of Summer and Winter, birth and death, and the frontier characters with their vision of the future, with such modern events as the changing of geography by the advent of a local seaway or of weather patterns by the seeding of the clouds. Unlike Sinclair Ross, Mitchell celebrates the bravery and courage of these little towns, their joyousness and will to live. He focuses upon their strengths although their weaknesses and foibles are also satirized and such areas as religious and racial bigotry exposed.
About one fifth of the episodes deal with the adventures of Jake or the Kid; the remaining four parts concern events and incidents which involve a large variety of townspeople with Jake and the Kid functioning as both observer and narrator. The characters are varied and highly coloured, even Dickensian. Flat rather than round, they play a set role already established by the first of the series. Old Man Gatenby, Sam Botten, the teacher Miss Henchbaw and Mrs. Abercrombie are consistently the antagonists, although occasionally they change roles, as when Miss Henchbaw is nearly fired by the School Board and is reinstated by the efforts of Jake. Events are both local and universal, incorporating rituals of the seasons, national celebrations and matters of local concern from the visit of the Princess and her husband to Saskatchewan's Golden Jubilee or to the Crocus Spring Auction and Trade Fair.
The Kid is, like Brian, Mitchell's Everyboy. It was a closely kept secret that the part was played by a woman over the six-year period; the director had foreseen the problems of replacing boys whose voices would change in the middle of the series. The Kid is the sensitive child, the Wordsworthian recorder of human emotions and responses to life. He describes the beauties and excitements of nature or comments on the remoteness of the stars and the insignificance of humanity in an alien universe. He is Dr. Watson to Jake's Sherlock Holmes. He asks the right questions, exposes the right secrets, recounts the mythical adventures of Jake to Miss Henchbaw and the community. Jake is his hero, with one foot in the world of the child and the other in that of the adult, an uncle figure with all of the traditional warmth and benevolence. Mitchell created from his sources - his Uncle Jim, an old horse gypsy from High River and several hired men he knew as a boy - a fascinating character who is at once frontier hero with his qualities of physical endurance, self-reliance and ingenuity, a story-teller and even a maker of miracles. These tales of Jake employ pithy language and sardonic humour to retell the legends of Sir John A. (MacDonald) or Wilf (Sir Wilfrid Laurier), Louis (Riel) or Chief Weasel-Tail. Mitchell rewrites history to create a real mythology of the prairies.
The music for the series was also distinctive and brilliant. Morris Surdin of Toronto was Mitchell's collaborator from the early days of the program and the two worked together harmoniously and intuitively. Surdin captured the precise mood and pace of each drama, experimented with new techniques, produced typical themes for each of the major characters and even composed a four- part fugue on the Jake and the Kid theme.
Out of the Jake series developed several independent dramas. The original version of The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon , a half-hour radio show, was broadcast in July 1950. Set in Khartoum, it concerns the dream of Wullie MacCrimmon, a philosophical shoemender, to win the MacDonald Brier. To achieve this Wullie gambles a curling-match against the Devil and wins by a trick worthy of his antagonist: in mending the Devil's curling-boot he has placed a small silver rivet under the sole. In February 1954 Mitchell expanded the episode to one hour and it was produced on Stage 54. The television adaptation was broadcast in January 1962 and a fictionalversion, a novelette, was published by Frontier Books in 1963. Finally the play was further expanded to two acts and performed by Theatre Calgary in 1979 and 1980 in Calgary, in Edmonton and on tour in Alberta. The supporting characters appear also in Jake and the Kid and The Kite. A sub-plot concerns a conflict between the ladies and the men of the town over Sunday curling. In the early versions, the minister Pringle agrees to turn a blind eye to the infraction of the Sabbath Act, since the Devil of course curls only on the Sabbath. In the final stage form, the dizziness of Malleable Brown, Wullie's third, results in the substitution of Pringle for the Wild Rose rink against the forces of Hell, the Devil, Judas Iscariot and MacBeth. Thus an amusing tale is turned into a comic, contemporary version of the Faustus myth.
The play "Royalty is Royalty" is developed from the Jake episodes "Royalty is Royalty" and "Prairie Flower". A fictional version, "The Princess and the Wild Ones", had won the University of Western Ontario Award for Short Fiction in 1953. Performed by the Greystone Players of Saskatoon under the direction of Emrys Jones, the play premiered on June 1, 1959, before the assembly of the Royal Society of Canada and the Learned Societies Conference. The central incident is the preparation of Crocus for the Royal Train carrying Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip which is to stop in Crocus for seven minutes to take on water. Complications involve an official change of schedule regarding which town will be favoured and an argument as to which school child will offer the Queen the official bouquet. Crocus wins the competition over Conception, not because of the protests of Mayor and Council but because of the communication of Moses Lefthand, great grandson of the original Chief to sign the Blackfoot Crossing Treaty, to Queen Elizabeth, great granddaughter of Victoria. The problem in bringing the Royal train onstage is solved by the Queen's decision not to leave the train and the climactic event is her special invitation to Moses Lefthand, his wife and his small son Lazarus, bearing a bouquet of prairie flowers, to enter the Royal presence. The play's reception in Saskatoon was very good. Mitchell was also making plans to stage the work in London, England, under the direction of Bernard Braden but was frustrated by the nature of his contract with the CBC which claimed all rights to any shows employing the title or characters of Jake and the Kid.
Several other episodes of Jake were turned into one-hour radio plays, among them "Honey and Hoppers" and "Black Harvest". Twelve episodes were produced by the National Film Board and staged on CBC-TV from July 4 to September 19, 1961. Murray Westgate starred as Jake and Rex Hagon as the Kid.
At some time before January 1958, Mitchell stopped work on The Alien and turned to a new novel Roses Are Difficult Here. By April John Gray wrote to Mitchell that they were "delighted with the book" and a contract was signed. The manuscript was revised by September 1959 and hopes were expressed for a Spring publication.
Roses Are Difficult Here is developed out of the middle section of The Alien, using the setting Shelby, Alberta, and many of the original characters. Carlyle Sinclair is replaced by Matt Francis, editor of the Shelby Chinook. The central conflict is drawn from a Jake and the Kid episode based on a real situation in Hanna, Alberta. Dr. June Campbell, a sociologist, comes to Shelby to study the town, its attitudes and mores, and eventually publishes a scientific but unsympathetic document which enrages the townspeople. Related to this central plot are the secondary complications of identifying a local dog poisoner and also a writer of poison pen letters which implicate June and Matt. Much of the novel is comic but the dark underside of the town is exposed: its smugness and bigotry, its intolerance and prejudice. In the title incident, the grand prize of the Shelby Horticultural Society is unwittingly awarded to Mame Napoleon, wife of the town garbage collector, for her prize-winning roses, bought in Woolworth's and grown in rich loam naturally fertilized by a large herd of goats.
The ending of this novel is once more optimistic. Matt, who has previously judged the town harshly, revokes this criticism in a statement in The Chinook in which he counters June's negatives with an appreciation of the positive values and generosities of town life. His marriage is repaired and the town continues on. However, the Napoleons have departed for British Columbia after loosing on Main Street their herd of goats, all named after ladies of the town. The most successful characters in the novel are the Napoleons, Senator Dan Riley and deaf old Aunt Fan who is at once loveable and innocent.
John Gray agreed to proceed with publication of Roses Are Difficult Here in 1960. When the novel had been refused by a succession of American and British firms however, Macmillan's lack of enthusiasm became evident and eventually Mitchell agreed to release them from their contract. Before becoming discouraged by the negative reception of his last two novels in Toronto and abroad, Mitchell had begun to work on yet a fourth, The Kite. The idea was again adapted from Jake and the Kid. As early as the Fall of 1956 Mitchell referred to a novel combining the stories of Daddy Johnson with those of Dr. Winesinger, the marvelous character who sells medications and varied potions for all human ailments. Dr. Winesinger later disappeared to resurface in the form of evangelist Heally Richards in The Vanishing Point. Mitchell made reference to his work on the book in 1958 and on July 18, 1960, the manuscript was sent off to John Gray in Toronto. John Gray was more enthusiastic about this novel but he again avoided suggesting revisions until comments from prospective publishers in the United States and Britain should arrive.
Meanwhile, to encourage Mitchell further, Macmillan's published a selection of Jake and the Kid stories in 1961. These stories range widely from the early wartime stories to events such as the Saskatchewan Jubilee Celebrations in 1955. They include most of the ones published in Maclean's either before the radio series began or during its sequence. The collection was popular and Mitchell received the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 1962. By November 1961, John Gray and Macmillan's decided to proceed with the publication of The Kite in Canada without further delay. A minor revision concerned substituting names for twelve characters who had already appeared in Jake and the Kid. In September 1962, The Kite appeared in print, fifteen years after the early triumph of Who Has Seen the Wind.
The theme of The Kite, as it is in Who Has Seen the Wind, is man's search for meaning and purpose in the face of death and mortality. The protagonist David Lang, a journalist for a Toronto magazine, comes to Shelby, Alberta, to interview Daddy Sherry, the town's one hundred and eleven-year-old patriarch. As a journalist and television celebrity, David is obsessed by an awareness of time, impermanence and death. Like Jim Burden in My 'Antonia and Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, David is vital to the novel: it is his perception of Daddy that is essential, not Daddy himself.
The structure of the novel is episodic and follows David's gradual discovery of Daddy. At first he tries to fit him into the stereotypes of oil magnate or pioneer and historian. But Daddy refuses to be confined by words. Gradually, assisted by Helen MacLean and her son Keith, David creates a mosaic of Daddy from his own observations and a series of flashbacks narrated by other characters: Daddy's visit to Keith's grandmother and his escape on the "trapeze", the goose hunt, the discovery of oil on his property in Paradise and his refusal to sell, the foiled marriage to his housekeeper, the tale of Joe Binestettner, Daddy and Ramrod, and finally the flood in which Daddy's house is carried downstream into the United States. These anecdotes are balanced by the chronological events: the preparations for Daddy's birthday, his determination to outwit them and to die before the event, and finally the ceremony itself and Daddy's birthday. The novel ends with the marriage of Helen and David, the comic convention of the celebration of life.
The portrait of Daddy is one of Mitchell's most brilliant. We see him as a contankerous, stubborn, opinionated old man but one who is alive in every nerve of his body. He is the antithesis of David and his decision to leave David his gold watch, then later just the chain, symbolizes David's bondage to time. His great gift to David is an appreciation of life and of the present. In the title episode David returns in memory to his childhood and relives the disappointment of his youth when he and Lon, another Mitchell uncle figure, constructed a kite. The sudden death of Lon led to the loss both of his kite and of his dream. David's assistance to Keith in building a kite for Daddy becomes, then, a celebration of life and meaning. In the climax of the novel, Daddy approaches the magnificent grandfather clock, the gift of the town, and beats it to death to annihilate time. The kite, however, is a symbol of life and immortality; Daddy, in flying it and then passing it to Keith, revealed as his great great grandson, becomes free of time and death.
The Kite did not sell well and the publisher was disappointed, as were the readers who expected another Who Has Seen the Wind. In 1973, after the publication of The Vanishing Point, copies of The Kite were retrieved from storage in the back shelves of bookstores and, in 1974, Macmillan's reissued it in paperback in the Laurentian Library series. Since then it has remained in print.
With the approach of Canada's Centennial year, writers, artists and musicians across the country were encouraged to create appropriate works of celebration for Canada's coming-of-age. Mitchell had two projects in process. The first was a commissioned drama called The Centennial Play; it was to be a group work of art and was co-ordinated by Robertson Davies who wrote the Prologue, the Epilogue and the Ontario section. Other contributors were Arthur Murphy for the Maritimes, Yves Thériault for Quebec and Eric Nicol for British Columbia. The play was produced twice, once in Lindsay, Ontario, on October 6, 1966, and in a revised form by the Ottawa Little Theatre directed by Peter Boretski on January 11, 1967. After its poor reception in Ottawa, Mitchell defended the play, pointing out that it was not intended for Broadway or West End London but rather for little theatre groups and church or school dramas: "it was meant to be a mosaic of Canadian history, taking ourselves lightly and with affection".
A more exciting project was the musical Wild Rose, by Mitchell and Morris Surdin, adapted from Royalty is Royalty but with several major alterations. Mitchell has called it "a foothills comedy of manners". To provide a romance, Jake becomes Dave Morgan, a widowed rancher, and the Kid becomes Bud, the tomboy daughter, while the spartan Miss Henchbaw gives place to the idealistic young teacher Margaret Spafford. The action is up-dated to Centennial Year and the setting to Wild Rose, Alberta, "on the main line about where Cochrane is". Once more the action involves town rivalry with Conception about the choice of watering- place for the Royal Train, and conflict between Mariel Oliver and Cora Rossdance, daughters of the town elite, for the honour of presenting the bouquet. And again the Lefthand family is honoured and taken onto the Royal Train to see the Queen. There are twelve songs and choruses, among them "The Arithmetic of Love", "Two Cheers for People", and two songs by Moses Lefthand, "Man took this Trail" and "Blood, Blood, Blood".
Wild Rose was very successful in Calgary, playing to an almost full house. Directed by Georgie Collins, it was produced by the Mac 14 Theatre Society and premiered on May 24, 1967. In attendance were Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra and her husband, Secretary of State Judy La Marsh and film director Arthur Hiller. The University of Calgary Choir went on tour from May 2 to 14 featuring a Musical Scenario from Wild Rose. It played in Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Sault Ste. Marie, Pembroke, Ottawa and Montreal at Expo. However, plans to take the show to London, England, did not materialize and it has not been performed since.
During the sixties Mitchell also began to develop a series of semi-autobiographical sketches and stories, among them "The Day I Spoke for Lincoln", "See the Pattern Forming", "How I Sold Lingerie", "How to Stop Smoking", "The Hired Man", "The Shock Therapy of Melvin Arbuckle" and "Take One Giant Step". These were first read on the CBC in 1962, published in magazines like Maclean's or The Imperial Oil Review and later adapted for performance at the increasingly successful one-man shows put on by Mitchell in the 1960s and 1970s across Canada. In these Mitchell developed the well-known Mitchell persona, on the line of Stephen Leacock and Mark Twain: the loveable, comic, sometimes bawdy story-teller with a lilting voice, a slightly rough cadence and an infectious enjoyment of his own tales. The sketches were submitted to Macmillan's in 1965 under the title "The Day We Exported Grandmother" but remain unpublished so far.
In 1968, the Mitchells made a major decision. Mitchell decided to accept an offer from the University of Calgary to be Writer-in-Residence, the position to be subsidized by a Canada Council Grant. The Mitchells bought a house in Calgary and ended their more than twenty-year residence in High River. This was to be the first of many appointments to Canadian universities: the University of Calgary (1968-1971), the University of Alberta (1971-1973), the University of Toronto (1973-1974), York University (1976) and the University of Windsor (1979- ). In the Fall of 1976 he spent three months with the Winnipeg School Board teaching creative writing in the elementary schools. The summers the Mitchells spent in Calgary and at their cabin at Mabel Lake, B.C. The first two weeks of July every year from 1975 to 1986 Mitchell taught at the Banff Centre for the Arts where he was Studio Head of Creative Writing.
In late 1967, when Mitchell was considering the practicality of the move to Calgary, he was at work again on The Alien which he had put aside five or six years before. By June 1968 when the family settled in the new house he was well advanced with the restructuring of the novel. This time he progressed rapidly and in July 1971 the final manuscript of the first 300 pages reached Macmillan's; in 1973 he completed the final 100 pages. The long-awaited novel, now titled The Vanishing Point, appeared in the bookstores on October 12, 1973. Within a month a reprint of 2,000 copies was ordered and in 1975 Macmillan's reprinted it in paperback.
The Vanishing Point is developed out of the third section of The Alien. Its present is 1959 and its setting Paradise Valley Reserve where Carlyle Sinclair has been teaching for eight years. The problem with the earlier novel, Mitchell has explained, was that it said "No" to life. In the mid- sixties Mitchell was impressed by Steinbeck's image of the giant turtle in The Grapes of Wrath. Falling back two steps for every three ahead, the turtle gradually pulls himself onto land and thus comes to symbolize for Mitchell mankind which not only survives but, despite suffering and pain, progresses slowly towards its destination.
In the novel Carlyle moves from despair, a denial of humanity and meaning in an alien universe, to affirmation. Part One relates the present situation on Paradise Reserve, titled ironically by Mitchell. The predominance here of isolation and death, represented by Winter and the illness of old Esau Rider, symbolizes the pasts of both Carlyle and the Stoneys. Esau's granddaughter Victoria is the present. For Carlyle she is a symbol of hope. But Victoria rejects a life in the city where she, like the other Stoneys, feels alien. Here even the whites seek desperately for human contact, for escape from anonymity. The Paradise Indians are outsiders found frequenting beer parlours or jailed on a charge of "drunk and disorderly". In the Shelby Rodeo they are a parody of themselves. But the Reservation is not an answer either. Separated from the city by a modern suspension bridge, which cars cannot cross, it is a no man's land, neither present nor past. The original hunting grounds are gone; with the death of old Esau will come the death of their traditions, their link to their own heritage.
Part Two regresses to trace Carlyle's eight years in Paradise Valley and the failures of both himself and the other whites to make contact. Blinded by their own aims or a naive idealism, the teachers, the preachers and the Indian agents are unaware of real Indian needs and wants. Part Three picks up the thread of events from Part One and moves towards the conclusion. Interrelated with Carlyle's search for Victoria, gone missing from the hospital where she has been a nursing student, are the wind-up campaign of the Faith Healer Heally Richards and his Rally for Jesus, Archie Nicotine's appeal to Heally to save old Esau, and the business activities of Norman and Gloria Catface in their lair behind the Liberty Cafe. The tone alternates between comedy, tragedy and black humour with tragedy predominating until the final scenes.
The Vanishing Point is more tightly structured than any of Mitchell's previous works. The most vital characters are old Esau, the wily Archie Nicotine, who never loses a contest of words, and Heally Richards. However, Carlyle, like David of The Kite, is central to the vision of the novel and his search for Victoria becomes a search for himself which takes in all the areas of his past life. His Aunt Pearl has been life-denying and has impressed her will on him as has Old Kacky, the Grade Five teacher who, in the title episode, punished the child Carlyle in an exercise on perspective for introducing a deciduous tree into a prairie landscape. Carlyle has rejected both of these but has been guilty of their rigidity and denial of creativity. And like Heally Richards, he has put others into moral boxes, has sought power to control rather than to serve. In the climax of the novel, Heally, in the final hours of the Rally, raises up old Esau in the huge tent and then watches him drop back stone dead before the television cameras and the eyes of the nation.
For Carlyle, this is the moment of illumination. He returns to the Reserve and joins in the Prairie Chicken Dance, relating the beat of the drums to the beat of life itself. Accepting Victoria and her pregnancy, he realizes that he must heal divisions between man and man, race and race, with love. The novel ends with his awakening, beside Victoria, to a morning in the fulness of Spring, the trees in leaf, the creek running free. He is committed to humanity and with Mitchell has said "Yes" to life.
The immediate response to The Vanishing Point was disappointment: the public still looked for another Who Has Seen the Wind or a Jake and the Kid. But the novel is much broader than these earlier works, much more complex than even The Kite. In the years following, it was assessed more accurately by critics who saw it in perspective: Dick Harrison in Unnamed Country: The Struggle for a Canadian Prairie Fiction and Leslie Monkman in A Native Heritage.
Following The Vanishing Point, Mitchell began a new period in his drama writing. In 1972 a stage version of The Devil's Instrument was performed by Youtheatre in Peterborough, Ontario. Mitchell also scripted the movie Alien Thunder on the Duck Lake massacre (starring Donald Sutherland as an RCMP Sergeant) but because of changes made by the Director, Mitchell had his name removed from the final version. A happier occasion was the production of his play Back to Beulah. It was originally written for Fletcher Markle's national television drama series "The Play's the Thing", directed by Eric Till, and was broadcast on March 21, 1974. A radio version won an ACTRA award and Mitchell adapted it for a full-length production for Theatre Calgary, directed by Guy Sprung who presented it in January 1976. It was later transferred to The Tarragon Theatre in Toronto and then in March performed in Vancouver by the Playhouse Theatre Centre's New Company directed by Bob Baker. In 1976 Back to Beulah shared the Chalmers Award, Canada's top prize for play-writing, with Larry Fineberg's Eve. In the Summer of 1977 it played at Halifax's Neptune Theatre directed by John Wood and in November Wood took it to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
Mitchell has described the play as about "the thin line between illusion and reality". The three women, Harriet, Agnes and Betty, are modelled on three maids whom the Mitchell household employed in Weyburn. In the play, they are inhabitants of a half-way house in the basement of Dr. Anders, their psychiatrist. The threat held over them is that if they do not conform to society's conception of "good behaviour", they will be sent "back to Beulah", the mental hospital. Each of the women is portrayed as lonely and isolated, from Agnes who steals the department store doll for a Christ-child to Harriet who is the rigid life-denying martyr. The Christmas setting emphasizes the isolation of the women and the pathos. The hymn "Amazing Grace" becomes a leit-motif and Mitchell presents the bridge between the world of the mentally ill and the "sane" as precarious. While much of the action is darkly tragic, there are moments of high comedy, and also situation comedy, such as when the women capture Dr. Anders, just as she is about to leave for a skiing holiday with a male colleague, and reverse their situation, drugging her and holding her captive. The ending is inevitable: Agnes is taken back to Beulah and the two other women are left with empty, meaningless and loveless lives.
In 1977, Guy Sprung mounted a production of Mitchell's script The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon, expanded from a one-hour television drama, at the Peterborough Festival of Canadian Theatre. In 1979 the play was performed at the QR Centre by Theatre Calgary, again directed by Guy Sprung. The following Spring it ran again in Calgary for several weeks and was taken as well to Edmonton; then it toured the province under the auspices of the Festival of the Arts. Hugh Webster played the Scot Wullie both in Peterborough and Calgary and Michael Ball played the Devil.
In 1981, after the success of The Black Bonspiel in two consecutive seasons, Theatre Calgary was delighted when Mitchell sent them another play. The Kite, says Director Rick McNair, was inspired by the novel but a "completely new piece of writing". Here Daddy Sherry is up-dated from 111 years to 117; he now appears on CBC television and expresses by a calculated fart his contempt for birthday parties, politicians and observers in general. Daddy, still irrascible and crude but also refreshing, was played by Jack Creley who had taken the role in the television version of The Kite sixteen years before and also a part in four Jake and the Kid television productions. Creley had also appeared at Stratford, the Shaw Festival and in a number of CBC shows as well as in New York and London, England. David Lang the journalist is replaced by David Richardson, the doctor who hovers in the background, a family physician, adviser and perhaps lover of Helen MacLean. Thus we see Daddy directly, not deflected by another point of view. In contrast, Helen's role is much stronger in this version and she now features with her son Keith as one of the three central figures.
The Kite played at Theatre Calgary from April 30 to May 23 and then moved to Toronto to take part in the Toronto Theatre Festival, an international event with thirty different companies from the United States, Great Britain, Poland, Germany and Israel as well as several Canadian groups. In the Fall it was performed in Edmonton by a local company.
The following year, Theatre Calgary again produced a Mitchell play, this time one quite new to Calgary audiences, For Those in Peril on the Sea. It was adapted from a play Mitchell had written for the CBC in 1975, Sacrament, also titled "Lost in the Long, Long Grass". The central incident is adapted from The Kite; the boy Keith, who has in this case lost his father through separation and divorce, develops a relationship with the boarder Lon, a retired sea captain who helps him to build a boat. At Lon's death Keith learns that he was in fact a Saskatchewan farmboy who dreamed of the sea and worked for the CPR ferry service. The other characters are a series of unrelated and lonely people who board with Keith's mother, including Norman, a hairdresser who is homosexual. The treatment, though stereotypic, is sympathetic and Mitchell has remarked: "I think Norman is one of the most compassionate and understanding characterizations of loneliness I can think of".
The television play was commissioned by John Hirsch and produced in 1976 as the first production in Vancouver's new CBC studio complex. But when John Hirsch saw the rough cut and the character of Norman, who had been added since the draft copy, he said the whole work would have to be rewritten and re-filmed. Instead it was buried in CBC's files and then produced without prior announcement on January 1, 1978.
For Those in Peril on the Sea was directed by Rick McNair and performed by Theatre Calgary in February 1982. The play retains the setting, the boarding-house which brings together a "false constellation of people", dreamers and loners who live together as a family. In addition to Norman there are a young widow, an alcoholic Englishman who sells encyclopedias and Miss Teetsworth, a spinster who bickers with Lon over the condition of the bathroom. The new feature of this version is the change of the son from Keith, the eleven-year-old, to Howard, seventeen and retarded. The death of Lon and the subsequent unhappiness of Howard bring the members of the household together in an attempt to console Howard for the loss of Lon and his dreams of the boat.
The burst of creative energy which had produced three different plays in four years was also conducive to fiction. In the Fall of 1981, Mitchell published his fourth novel, How I Spent My Summer Holidays. While the title and book jacket suggest that Mitchell has returned to the time and mood of Who Has Seen the Wind, the novel is a much darker study of the world of childhood and puberty, of the war between children and adults and of the bigotry, sensuality and corruption of the adult world.
The narration is retrospective and for the first time employs a first person point of view. The old man Hugh looks back to his youth, in particular to the Summer of 1924 and the months following, which marked his transition from innocence to experience, the Blakean theme which underlies all of Mitchell's writing. We thus have a double time: as in Dickens's Great Expectations we see the world through the eyes of the twelve-year-old boy but modified and interpreted by the older man. The title, like that of The Vanishing Point, chooses a childhood experience at school as an ironic comment on education and juxtaposes the ritual with the confusion, chaos and horror of the reality.
In the opening chapters we see the four divisions of the town and its environs: the worlds of the children, the adults and the two borderlines, represented by Sadie Rossdance and her "girls" and the Mental Hospital. The four worlds are brought together through the figure of Kingsley Spurgeon Motherwell. A tragic Jake Trumper, he initiates the children into the adult world and protects them from the harsher aspects of life. He is linked to the "Mental" through Billy the Sheepherder and we come to discover later, to Sadie through his wife Bella.
The protagonist Hugh is a very credible character. Again Mitchell is
at his strongest when portraying the child. But against the familiar activities
of boyhood - the clubs and summer swimming hole, the movies and digging
caves - is thrown both the darker thrust of Hugh's sexual development,
and the violence and horror of the events of the novel: the discovery
of Bella dead in the cave, the disappearance of Billy the Sheepherder,
and the later revelation that Billy has died of natural causes and that
King has murdered Bella on discovering her activities at Sadie's. King
withdraws within himself; he later is committed to the "Mental" and hangs
himself. Hugh bears the guilt for life, for it is he who has, inadvertently,
revealed Bella's secret. The novel therefore becomes a vehicle to lay
the ghost of King Motherwell. The elder Hugh indicts a society which has
outlawed the open expression of sensuality, denied humanity to the mentally
ill and forced rigidity and Puritanism upon its children. The horrifying
"brothel scene" nightmare of the opening pages, with its depiction of
children's upturned bottoms, suggests the destruction of innocence in
Hugh's world. In the end the children too are guilty and bear the sins
of the community. In particular Austin Musgrave later, as a west coast
psychiatrist, employs suitably his childhood talents for gossip and Bible-reading
in search of secret sins. Fast-paced and more tightly structured than
any other of Mitchell's works, the novel is a powerful study of evil and
In How I Spent My Summer Holidays Mitchell deals with a theme that he had suggested as early as Who Has Seen the Wind: the heart of darkness that exists within us all. Gradually in the last fifteen years, with The Vanishing Point, Back to Beulah, For Those in Peril on the Sea and How I Spent My Summer Holidays, he is moving closer to a vision of the darker side of human experience. The Vanishing Point ends with a traditional comic ending: marriage, a feast or dance and Spring or new life. Back to Beulah, however, returns Agnes to the darkness of the outsider, the place where those who do not conform to society and "sanity" are excluded from the "sane" world. And in the last novel, Hugh is left with guilt and a need, like the Ancient Mariner, obsessively to retell his story, for it is only in the telling that he can find release.
Mitchell's most recent novel, Since Daisy Creek (1984), looks at the darkness from the viewpoint of a middle-aged man who, unlike Hugh, returns from the horror to silence. Colin Dobbs, Professor of English and Creative Writing at Livingstone University in the foothills of the Rockies, is an artist manquÇ. After publishing some ten short stories, one entitled "Roses Are Difficult Here" which was "an Atlantic first", Colin has ceased writing about ten years previously, his novel still-born.
The genesis of the novel was an actual bear-hunt which Mitchell fictionalized in "The Trophy", an episode of Foothill Fables broadcast over CBC radio in January 1964. Donald Armstrong, who shares with Mitchell a prairie childhood and a tubercular wrist, shoots a magnificent grizzly but when he holds a party to reveal the hide, he discovers that the taxidermist has substituted the pelt of a small brown bear. His humiliation and a sense of corruption predominate in the mood of the ending. Twenty years later, Mitchell creates out of this initial story a much richer and more complex fiction. Here the bear hunt up Daisy Creek is antecedent to the action by three months. Rescued by Archie Nicotine who is resurrected from The Vanishing Point, Dobbs returns to life but the raking claws of the she-grizzly have scarred his face and chest, partially closed one eye and damaged his spine and arm. Colin's wounds, however, are more than physical. As his daughter Annie points out, the hunt itself was a substitute for both his writing and his marriage. At forty-eight Colin is a Lear figure: already old, crusty, blinded both physically and metaphorically.
Dobbs is, like Daddy Sherry, one of Mitchell's great characters. He is matched by his feisty daughter Annie, returned from hippydom in California and British Columbia to alternately nurse and provoke him. A visual artist modelled on Willa Lynn Mitchell, Annie is Mitchell's strongest female portrait. The series of studies which she paints of her father look through his rough exterior to the inner self he thought he alone knew. Thus the Trial in the last part of the novel where Dobbs takes to court Wild Trophy World for fraudulent practices becomes a trial of society and ultimately of Dobbs himself. As in Moby Dick the quest is turned inward.
The primary setting of the novel, Livingstone University, provides Mitchell with an opportunity to satirize both individually and collectively the institutions where Mitchell has spent his past twenty years. The theme of individual corruption is broadened to include the corruption of whole faculties and administrations of academia. There are several rollicking scenes including an office seduction on a floor strewn with term papers, a faculty wine and cheese party which ends in death by detergent for hundreds of decorative gold fish and an exposure of the university president as an imposter. But on the whole the satire of the university is thin and acrid.
The novel, like The Kite and The Vanishing Point, ends in hope. Stripped of his pretensions, Dobbs must become the artist true to himself and his vision. Only when he has been to the centre and come back again can he diffuse the darkness with the light of understanding.
While the settings of these later novels are western, like those of his earlier works Jake and the Kid, Who Has Seen the Wind and The Kite, the geography and landscape serve a much broader purpose. Robert Kroetsch has remarked to Margaret Laurence, "As Western Canadian Writers [we] are involved in making a new literature out of a new experience....In a sense we haven't got an identity until somebody tells our story. The fiction makes us real". Mitchell has done this for western Canadians, both writers and readers. But he does more than this. In these last works, like William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence, he has shown the way to an inner landscape.
Mitchell is still writing. Increasingly in the last dozen years he has been receiving the recognition that has been his due for the past thirty-five years. In 1973 he was made a Member of the Order of Canada and he has been awarded Honorary Degrees at the universities of Ottawa, Regina, Calgary and Windsor.
In 1980 Robert Duncan's film profile "W.O. Mitchell: Novelist in Hiding" was screened by the National Film Board; it has been rerun on CBC television. The publication in 1982 by Macmillan's of Dramatic W.O. Mitchell makes available to his readers five of the plays dating back to The Devil's Instrument in 1949. He is still drawing on material he generated in the fifties and early sixties, the period that seemed to so many critics to be sterile. He is also receiving recognition abroad: his books are being published in Britain, Europe and the United States, and in 1982 he did a reading tour of Great Britain, Germany and France.
Mitchell is still growing as a writer. We are left to speculate what
direction his writing will take in the next few years.
(c) The W.O. Mitchell papers: an inventory of the archive at the University of Calgary Libraries. Compilers: Marlys Chevrefils, Sandra Mortensen, Apollonia Steele, Jean F. Tener. Editors: Jean F. Tener, Apollonia Steele. Biocritical essay: Catherine McLay. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1986.