In February 1998, W.O. Mitchell passed away in Calgary leaving behind a legacy of great Canadian Literature, including such favourites as Jake and the Kid
(1962), The Kite
(1962), The Vanishing Point
(1973), Roses Are Difficult Here
(1990), and The Black Bonspiel of Willie MacCrimmon
He was a novelist, playwright, teacher, and editor, but what W.O. Mitchell loved most of all was to perform in front of a live audience. Beginning in the 1960s, he travelled around the world, telling his unique stories to spellbound fans.
An Evening With W.O. Mitchell (McClelland & Stewart, 261 pages, $16.99 cloth) is a collection of the author's best-loved performance pieces, selected and edited by Barbara and Ormond Mitchell. It is a must read for anyone who is curious to learn more about one of Canada's greatest writers. It is also a wonderful companion book to the recently released original version of Who Has Seen The Wind (McClelland & Stewart, 331 pages, $24.99)-that whimsical, engaging tale of young Brian O'Connal, a child of the Saskatchewan prairies. (It was Barbara, W.O. Mitchell's daughter-in-law, who discovered in 1988 that the original text version of Who Has Seen The Wind had not been published in its entirety since 1947.)
Each of the thirty-one short pieces in An Evening with W.O. Mitchell offers the reader wonderful insights into who W.O. Mitchell really was. He writes: "For years as a writer and before that as an ordinary and sensible person, I have always been drawn to the very young and the very old; either end of the age stick has seemed so much more interesting than the middle. There is not anything dilute or luke about the emotions and responses of children and old people, almost as though we start out concentrated and we end up concentrated."
The exuberant, brilliant character of W.O. Mitchell leaps off the pages of this anthology. Every selection is accompanied by a black-and-white photo of W.O. in action, a brief explanation of the origin of the work, as well as a short anecdote to put it in context. The topics are diverse, ranging from his own hilarious attempts at quitting smoking to the autobiographical final entry, "The Poetry of Life". Here, he reveals the path that led him to publish his first book, Who Has Seen The Wind.
The excerpts are from his radio performances, plays, personal appearances, and novels. Some are sad, some are humorous, and all are unforgettable. "The pieces in this anthology have formed the heart of my reading performances over the past thirty-five years," says W.O. Mitchell in the introduction, which he wrote just a year before his death.
Although not intended for children, this book is for the child in of all of us. It demands to be read aloud, as I discovered one rainy afternoon, when I found myself pacing the floor, book clutched in one hand, gesturing madly with the other, while my patient dog lay listening attentively to another of W.O.'s intriguing, irresistible tales.