And all about him was the wind now, a pervasive sighing trough, a great emptiness, as though the prairie itself was breathing in long gusting breaths, unhampered by the buildings of town, warm and living against his face and in his hair. (W. O. Mitchell – Who Has Seen The Wind)
I remember being profoundly affected by reading W.O. Mitchell’s novel, Who Has Seen the Wind. I was in my thirties and I had a deep curiosity about the various landscapes mapped out across this huge country I call home … Canada. The way in which Mitchell so artfully described the prairie stayed with me. I had never experienced such a landscape and Mitchell’s words sparked my imagination and engendered a desire to hear the wind hum and twang in the telephone wires, to walk to the edge of a town and feel the prairie all around me. Because the book is set in Saskatchewan, I just carelessly assumed that W.O. Mitchell lived his life in Saskatchewan.
Imagine my surprise when Bruce and I visited the Museum of the Highwood in High River, Alberta and discovered their wonderfully constructed W.O. Mitchell exhibit. I learned that Mitchell had lived for years in High River. That he raised his family in the community and that, in fact, he and his wife were buried in the High River Cemetery.
For some background, I’ll turn this over to an article by Kevin Rushworth that appeared in the High River Times in 2014 to celebrate the opening of the exhibit.
By Kevin Rushworth ( http://www.highrivertimes.com/2014/03/10/museum-exhibit-to-celebrate-high-rivers-wo-mitchell ) High River Times, March 9th, 2014
Who Has Seen the Wind, written by late Canadian author and broadcaster W.O. Mitchell in 1947, and his other literary works might have made him a national icon, but a new exhibit at the Museum of the Highwood will shed light on one of High River’s most prominent citizens 100 years after his birth.
William Ormond Mitchell—more commonly known as W.0. Mitchell or Bill to his friends—was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan on March 13, 1914.
Canada would come to welcome this literary figure with open arms, ultimately providing him with the Order of Canada and the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, but Mitchell’s 20 years spent in High River started simply—he arrived in the community by bus in 1943.
By 1945, he fell in love with the community, brought his wife Merna to High River and his first and arguably most famous book, Who Has Seen the Wind was published in 1947.
Irene Kerr, curator and director of the Museum of the Highwood, has found herself laughing out loud during research for the exhibit. The exhibit focuses on the years Mitchell spent in High River. “It’s so Canadian, so prairie and it’s so small town,” she said. “His humour was brilliant. He tells all these stories that we often tell at the museum, but he tells them in a little skewed, more humorous way.”
Mitchell drew inspiration for many of his characters from real people he met living in High River. His three children were born and raised in the community. While going about his daily routine, Mitchell would jot down notes about the people he met. Many of them became the so called ‘salty characters’ in his novels.
While being interviewed, Mitchell himself once said much of the inspiration for the town of Crocus—as seen in his Jake and the Kid novel and the CBC radio show—came from High River.
Mitchell wrote that High River was always a special place, “She’s a town with a conservative personality which makes you love her and lose patience with her, but she’s still a cowtown that takes her rhythms with the seasons,”
We thoroughly enjoyed our time exploring the Museum of the Highwood. The curator – I didn’t get her name and sure wish I had – responded to our questions about the flood in 2013 by sitting us down at a table and bringing out several books with graphic photos. She regaled us with stories that made the whole event come to life and that, I must say, was a scary experience!
Have you ever discovered something previously unknown about a favourite author? Was there ever an author or book that made you want to experience a certain landscape?
When I visit High River in the summer, I want to walk to the end of a street and have a W.O. Mitchell experience of prairie:
I would walk to the end of the street and over the prairie with the clickety grasshoppers bunging in arcs ahead of me, and I could hear the hum and twang of wind in the great prairie harp of telephone wires. Standing there with the total thrust of prairie sun on my vulnerable head, I guess I learned — at a very young age — that I was mortal.