Who Has Seen the Wind

by W. O. Mitchell,
331 pages,
ISBN: 0771060785

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A Classic Restored
by Rupert Schieder

THE DUST-JACKET of this new edition of W. O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind announces: "For the first time since 1947 -the complete classic text of Canada's best-loved novel." Cynical readers may ask: "Publisher's hype?" Or, on second thought: "Surprising, regrettable fact?" For an answer, the publishing history of the novel provides an enlightening, if somewhat complicated, view of the vagaries of the publishing business.

The original publisher, Little, Brown of Boston, unwilling to risk too much money on an unknown Canadian writer, cut the novel by about 7,000 words so that it would fit the 300-page format of one of their popular series. Mitchell, still owning the Canadian rights, persuaded Macmillan of Canada to issue, that same year, a 344-page edition that restored the deleted material. The next step in the process is the crucial one, the one on which any verdict of "betrayal" depends. For Macmillan that year "reprinted" the novel, strangely enough, in the shortened American version. They have used this text in all the numerous subsequent publications: the 1960 Macmillan reprint, the 1972 school text in their Laurentian Library series, the more than half a million paperbacks that have come out every two years since 1973, the 1974 French version, and the 1976 edition with illustrations by William Kurelek.

In an attempt to account for Macmillan's use in 1947 of the American 300-page version rather than their own 344-page one, the opinion of Douglas Gibson is pertinent; for he spent 12 years with Macmillan, and is now McClelland & Stewart's publisher for this new 1991 edition. According to him the failure to reprint the complete 344-page text is a "mystery," an "unaccountable" error of the production department.

At least one obvious question remains. Since Mitchell still held the Canadian rights, why didn't he insist that Macmillan go back to their complete 1947 version for their reprints and editions? Gibson suggests that Mitchell was not aware of the cuts until they were pointed out to him much later. In 1988 his daughter-in-law, Barbara Mitchell, published a detailed study of the differences in "The Long and the Short of It: Two Versions of Who Has Seen the Wind."

The difference between the two versions is important. For since the novel's publication, thousands of readers, including teachers and students in high schools and universities, where it soon became part of the CanLit canon, have been unaware that they were being deprived of the author's original, intended text. The vagaries of the publishing world aside, the central issue is the extent and the effect of these cuts on the novel itself. An examination of the first chapters of the two versions reveals a variety of different kit-ids of cut.

Deleted from the first page are single adjectives, phrases, clauses, and one whole paragraph that develops an important graphic analogy concerning the wind itself Later, entire half pages are cut. In chapter three more than three and a half pages disappear. One could continue throughout the book, but what is more important than the quantity is the effect of these deletions. It soon becomes evident that they were not made solely for the sake of economy. Taken as a whole, they distort the novel in several different ways. Two stand out: the character of the central figure and the thematic strands that Mitchell announces in the title, the quotations from Christina Rossetti, and the prefatory 10 lines.

The American editor obviously wanted the protagonist, Brian O'Connal, presented as a nice, "all-American" boy to fit into the Norman Rockwell pattern. So sections that show him as bad-tempered, vengeful, and -aggressive, fascinated by his uncle's rich profanity, the kind of boy that Mitchell's realistic sense of humour produced, are either toned down or deleted altogether. Other characters, such as the schoolteacher, are so "cleaned up" that a simplistic pattern of black-and-white tones results, which also reduces the moral complexity of the original.

The thematic material is similarly affected. Sections that reveal Brian's "moments of fleeting vision of the realities of birth, hunger, satiety, eternity, death" are lost; germane to Mitchell's theme is the mystic, intuitive relation of Brian to "the Ben," the strange boy who embodies the prairie, the "wild." The Presbyterian minister's debate on the relation of "self and non-self" that stems from Mitchell's concern with philosophical problems is also cut. As a result of these deletions, teachers have found the character of "the Ben" unresolved, unsatisfactory. Evidently, the American editor saw no place for these visionary Suggestions.

Fortunately, with the publication of the complete, original text, the betrayal of W. O. Mitchell and Brian O'Connal has come to an end. The 1991 edition is handsomely produced, with elegantly set-Lip title page and prefatory material, and large, clear type. In addition, the 32 black-and-white sketches and the eight coloured illustrations that William Kurelek produced for the 1976 Macmillan edition have been included. Since the film for the original illustrations was somehow lost - another mystery - new film had to be made. This was produced on glossy rather than ordinary paper, and is noticeably clearer, bringing out detail that was lost in the 1976 edition Another bonus is the new dust-jacket, which reproduces Kurelek's fine painting, Harvest Train in Manitoba. This "Douglas Gibson Book" does W. O. Mitchell justice - at last, after 44 years. It has made the Canadian bestseller lists and the first printing has already sold out - deservedly.


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