Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell

Jim Burden is one of the great narrators in literature. As a big city attorney, he recounts the story of growing up on the plains of Nebraska with Àntonia Shimerda. Jim’s Virginia parents have died, leaving his Nebraskan grandparents the responsibility of raising a ten-year old boy. Jim arrives in Black Hawk, Nebraska on a train also carrying the Shimerdas. The beauty of this initial connection between Jim and Àntonia, four years his elder, is a beautiful part of the overall structure of Cather’s first “masterpiece.” The star, of course, is not Jim, but Àntonia who, even after losing her youthful beauty, has “that something which fires the imagination” and which can “stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or a gesture that somehow reveal[s] the meaning of common things.” Cather does not just tell us this. Throughout My Àntonia, she demonstrates this fact in brilliantly conceived vignettes. As counterweight (or alter ego) to the brilliant Àntonia, Cather gives us the equally compelling prairie of the western United States. Cather’s concluding novel in her “prairie trilogy” was, as much as anything else, “a sort of love story of the country”, as her friend Edith Lewis described it.

W.O. Mitchell brought his equally intense passion for the Canadian prairie to Who Has Seen the Wind. The novel is set several decades later, in the 1930s and, in place of Jim Burden, Mitchell provides Brian O’Connal, a precocious menace and the protagonist. However, Brian does not narrate the book from the perspective of age as does Jim. In fact, Brian does not narrate at all, but is merely the character over whose shoulder we initially, and most often, peer.

Brian at the moment was in the breakfast-room. He sat under the table at the window, imagining himself an ant deep in a dark cave. Ants, he decided, saw things tiny and grass-coloured, and his father and mother would never know about it. He hated his mother and his father and his grandmother for spending so much time with the baby, for making it a blanket tent and none for him. Not that he cared; he needed no one to play with him now that he was an ant. He was a smart ant.

Brian’s brother is deathly sick, but Brian is too young to understand or care. He demonstrates his spunk and intelligence with his wild imaginings and mischief. Of course, in the mold of Dennis and Calvin, this little menace has a heart of gold. On one of his early adventures, he goes in search of God, but finds only the pastor’s wife. She demurs to his questions, suggesting that he really needs to talk to the pastor himself. Brian, whose father is a druggist, walks back through town, stopping on the edge to watch a boy from the prairie, Young Ben, walk across the landscape.

For one moment no wind stirred. A butterfly went pelting past.

God, Brian decided, must be very fond of the boy’s prairie.

Brian does meet the pastor, Hislop, and so impresses with his questions and curiosity that, later, the Hislop’s faith is “renewed” when he recalls the conversation. In the early going, this novel veers dangerously close to sentimentalism. Hislop’s renewed faith is again challenged when his parishioners revolt. The headmaster of the town’s school, Digby, is the pastor’s best friend. Hislop confides to Digby the troubles he has with the church elders.

”I’d still fight,” said Digby.

“No,” said Hislop. “I can’t.”

He went to the window again. “Right now,” he said with his back to Digby, “I can think of only one believer in the town.”

“How about me?”

Digby got up from his chair; he went over to Hislop and put his arm over the minister’s shoulder.

“The one I have in mind,” said Hislop, “is very young.”

The two stood silently side by side looking out at the rain.

Well, perhaps, it does more than veer. However, the religious mawkishness is saved by a puppy. Brian is not merely the sole inspiration for Hislop, he is a boy with a dog. I have a weakness for “boy with dog” stories. The weakness is pathological. Write a story about a boy playing with a puppy and I will soon be simpering like a fool. Big Red, Old Yeller, Sounder, and Where the Red Fern Grows can make my heart pound and my eyes well just by recalling their covers. Recalling the content constricts my throat. It is altogether pathetic. But Brian gets a puppy and I was pleased.

I was as disappointed as he was when the fox terrier proves too rambunctious to coexist with the grandmother and is sent to the garage to sleep. As anyone who has been a boy with a dog knows, this is hard to handle. Brian wanders out into the night to sleep with the poor thing and his parents panic upon realizing he is not in bed. Of course, the first place anyone who has read the foregoing “boy with dog” books would look for a boy would be with his dog. Duh. Oddly, the search party canvasses the town before turning, at last, to the garage where the policeman finds “Brian and the dog asleep on the floor.”

The story progresses more slowly than My Àntonia. Brian does not, as does Jim, grow up, leave the prairie and return years later. Instead, the book is all about Brian’s childhood and life in a small town on the prairie. This last point is important. Mitchell spends more time examining small town life, including the intrigues of Hislop, Digby, the school teachers, and the local moonshiner, than examining prairie life itself. Where Jim and Àntonia spend a great deal of time on the prairie, the most memorable parts of this book take place in town.

The focus also shifts from Brian and his family to the religious, educational, and governmental leaders of the town. The adults have romances. People die. The primary movers in the town use Young Ben as a pawn in their efforts to gather a little more control of the local politics into their arms. As beautifully as Mitchell writes, I became a little distracted from the “prairie” aspects of the novel, though Mitchell does lyrically catalogue the beauty of the prairie. The shifting focus, from boy to adults and back to boy is where Mitchell suffers in the comparison with Cather.

The Young Ben is Mitchell’s Àntonia. The prairie is personified in these two characters. But where Cather manages, despite a more consistent perspective, to examine the fullness of Àntonia’s character, the Young Ben remains more an object than a subject. Àntonia is the prairie and Cather’s work is about Àntonia, completely about her. The Young Ben remains something of an enigma throughout, very nearly a sideshow to Brian’s life and the life of the town. Mitchell’s book lacks the same focus on its subject and, I suspect, will be less memorable as a result.

Be aware, this is praising with faint damnation. My Àntonia is consistently one of my “five favorite novels” of all time and Cather one of my most beloved authors. Due to my own prejudices, it is doubtful that I would ever find a prairie novel that I believed equalled Cather’s work, or even approached it. So, let me stop the contrasts and simply take Who Has Seen the Wind on its own terms.

The novel does evoke the prairie. Though I have spent very little time, outside of Cather novels and Laura Ingall’s series, on the prairie, I feel as if I have. The prairie towns seem to have very similar concerns and lives, even decades apart. Life in rural areas can go for long stretches with seemingly little change. I need only visit my parents on the holidays to experience this. The continuum from Ingalls to Cather to Mitchell confirms this. But coming later does not mean Mitchell is redundant. He captures some of the same aspects, but even the similarities are welcome. Mitchell touchingly renders the prairie landscape in ways that remind me of those earlier works. Through his evocation, I can feel the wind, if I cannot quite see it.

Note: This book was part of my prize in a KfC-sponsored contest a few months ago. If you are not aware, he is running one as I type with entries closing October 3. Go get your entry in now.

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14 Responses to Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell

  1. Kerry: Thanks for the link to my contest. I agree with your assessment that Mitchell is more a study of small-town prairie than the actual prairie itself (Guy Vanderhaegge is probably a better Canadian example of that). I also think you have correctly captured that he is more interested in the process of growing up there, than in the result — which I think is Cather’s objective. I hope you found the book worth the time.

  2. Kerry says:

    Kevin,

    I am happy you agree. I am very pleased to have been exposed to this classic of Canadian literature. And there is an interesting contrast between Mitchell’s focus on the experience of living in a small prairie town and Cather’s focus on the way it shapes one (extraordinary) individual. I will keep a lookout for Vanderhaegge, because I do like these prairie books. Thanks, Kevin, for making a very thought-provoking choice for me on this one. Cather is a favorite (which you knew), so I really enjoyed the opportunity to compare the two.

  3. Kerry says:

    Kevin,

    And now I will offhandedly suggest it to my daughter…see if she gets into it.

  4. Kerry: I’m thinking you might have to promise your daughter a trip west so that she can actually see the prairie. We have a couple of bedrooms that you could use as a Calgary base — and the mountains are only an hour away once you have got bored with the prairie.

  5. Hi Kerry, I’m w/ you on Cather: stunning. Hope you’re well. Cheers, K

  6. It’s saved from sentimentality by the introduction of a puppy?

    I admit I’m a sucker for that stuff too, who isn’t? I’m still surprised though the puppy saves it from mawkishness.

    By way of an aside in Robert A Heinlein’s rather controversial SF novel Starship Troopers there’s a scene where the protagonist is being considered by army recruitment for attachment to the dog handling division. They ask him if he had a dog as a child, and if it was banned from his bedroom. He answers yes to both. They then ask him if he snuck out at night to be with his dog anyway, when he says no they reject him.

    Mitchell would understand that I suspect.

    Will you let us know what your daughter makes of it?

    Out of passing interest, I’ve covered a Vanderhaegge over at mine. I read it at Kevin’s suggestion actually. Interestingly, it’s held up well in memory and if anything I think more highly of it now than I did when I read it.

    • Kerry says:

      Well, it is saved from “religious mawkishness” by the introduction of a puppy. But you do make a good point. The book is a popular hit for a reason, it aims at numerous soft spots and found one of mine.

      I love your aside about Starship Troopers. That is a brilliant scene, thanks for sharing. It makes me want to read it.

      I certainly will update this entry if I can nudge her into reading it. She has bogged down in Pride and Prejudice for the time being, finding it a bit slow in the middle.

      The Vanderhaegge sounds excellent, particularly given recommendations from two bloggers whose tastes I trust.

  7. I think it is fair to observe that Mitchell does have a fondness for sentimentality in his younger characters (it is even more apparent in Jake and the Kid) but I am willing to allow him that.

    • Kerry says:

      Kevin, You have expressed the idea much more elegantly than did I. Mitchell’s “fondness for sentimentality” is an important aspect of the book and one of which, I think, prospective readers should be aware. However, in the end, I am willing to allow him that as well, because the town he creates (reflects) is sufficiently engaging that I am happy to have spent some time there.

      And I do like puppies.

  8. […] shelves. And if your curisoity is sparked at all, check out Hungry Like the Woolf’s review of Who Has Seen The Wind for a similar novel written a half-century ago — not much has changed in the rural West, you […]

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