Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell

September 28, 2010

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.


The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

August 8, 2010

I try to recommend to my daughter books that I have previously read. I had heard quite a bit about Neil Gaiman, whose star in the YA world has streaked through the heavens over the past few years. I had never read him, but thought my daughter might find his work enticing. Watership Down has languished, barely begun, so I wanted a second try. Her mother has a history with Stephen King and, it seems, our daughter has inherited at least a portion of her penchant for the phantasmic. The Graveyard Book, its Newberry Medal, and the gushing over Gaiman convinced me that I should suggest this one. I could not afford two lackluster receptions in a row or my literary credibility might be shot with her. I read it myself first.

The story begins with a triple murder (all family members) by a professional assassin. Only a toddler survives the attack on the family. The baby, through coincidence or infantile premonition, had chosen the night of the murders to wander from its crib. The killer, Jack, tracks the roaming child, by smell, to the graveyard.

Gaiman skillfully uses that impersonal pronoun:

It stared around it, taking the the faces of the dead, the mist, and the moon. Then it looked at Silas. Its gaze did not flinch. It looked grave.

The child is known to be a he. In fact, the ghosts have been referring to the little boy as “he”, but Gaiman’s narrator uses the impersonal which creates a distance between the ghosts and the boy. The boy is not yet a part of the community and he is not really a full person yet, just a toddler.

The friendly ghosts hide the child and misdirect Jack temporarily averting sure death.

An elderly, ghostly couple who had never had children want to take the boy in and raise him. The residents of the graveyard hold a council to determine whether the adoption should be allowed. Their discussion is interrupted by a woman on a grey horse.

They knew her, the graveyard folk, for each of us encounters the Lady on-the Grey at the end of our days, and there is no forgetting her.

…They were watching the Lady on the Grey, each of them half-excited, half-scared. The dead are not superstitious, not as a rule, but they watched her as a Roman Augur might have watched the sacred crows circle, seeking wisdom, seeking a clue.

And she spoke to them.

In a voice like the chiming of a hundred tiny silver bells, she said only, “The dead should have charity.” And she smiled.

The matter is settled. The Owenses will adopt the boy and raise him has their own.

Gaiman is an excellent storyteller. He has found the perfect voice for this sinister story. There are murders and equally frightening scenes after, but the story is told as a story. In that quote above, the narrator is unobtrusively inserted into the story with the slipping in of that “…not as a rule…” Little details like that provide enough distance to remind the reader, perhaps unconsciously, that they are reading a story, the events are not real. And, yet, the story is so compelling and the little details so pleasing (“…a voice like the chiming of a hundred tiny silver bells…”) that the reader is never pulled out of the story, but held tightly in.

The boy is named Nobody “Bod” Owens. The ghosts raise him with the mysterious Silas as his guardian. Gaiman carefully foreshadows key plot points and keeps the suspense building as Bod goes on small adventures. All the while, Gaiman is building in the little messages about childhood and parents and growing up that, I suspect, are typical of the genre.

His first contact with humans after his adoption by ghosts is with a little girl, Scarlett, whose parents visit the graveyard occasionally. The two always meet out of sight of Scarlett’s parents and, so, her parents believe Bod is an imaginary friend. Because no one else sees him, Scarlett thinks him unreal too, even as she tries to understand why he cannot leave the graveyard.

”Well, you can’t stay here all your life. Can you? One day you’ll grow up and then you will have to go and live in the world outside.”

He shook his head. “It’s not safe for me out there.”

“Who says?”

“Silas. My family. Everybody.”

She was silent.

Of course, the outside world is frightening for everyone, full of dangers for children and adults alike. Bod, as he grows, must leave the graveyard. He cannot live his whole life there. The ghosts and Silas, as all parents, worry about him and try to delay the inevitable. There are missteps. They give him freedom, but his adolescent curiosity and sense of justice court disaster. The dangers outside the graveyard are real, after all. Bod’s family was murdered and for a reason. Bod does not know the reason, the ghosts may not, but Bod does know the world holds a special danger for him.

Bod’s poor choices are more entertaining than those of most tweens. When he pours out his troubles to three passing ghouls, they sympathize. “What you need is to go somewhere where the people would appreciate you.” The anomic Bod follows the ghouls out of the graveyard and towards death. There is much humor for adults and much excitement for children in this and other vignettes, all of which drives home the messages of a frightening world, the protectiveness of parents, their wisdom, their errors of love, and the need for the child to be brave and careful. In other words, Gaiman does a good job of capturing both the feelings of childhood and the lessons teachers, parents, and awards juries believe are important for adolescents.

When Bod later decides he does not want to leave the graveyard at all, that he wants to stay with his parents and the other ghosts, Silas explains to him his difference from the ghosts.

Bod shrugged. “So?” he said. “It’s only death. I mean, all of my best friends are dead.”

“Yes.” Silas hesitated. “They are. And they are, for the most part, done with the world. You are not. You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you’re dead, it’s gone. Over. You’ve made what you’ve made, dreamed your dream, written your name. You may be buried here, you may even walk. But that potential is finished.”

I tried not to take this little lecture personally, as an allegorical description of parents or old folks. I too have potential still. I’m not dead yet!

But there are times reading this, that I felt old. It is a children’s book, if a very well-written and engaging one. I say that not only because I enjoyed it, and quickly, but my daughter (who is not quite finished) provides me with excited updates as she follows Bod on his adventures. As a children’s book, though, the bows are nicely tied, the unfolding of events is easy to see, even if you cannot always guess exactly how. The book reminded me somewhat of Alexander’s Bridge and The Secret Agent in how methodically the story was built, how tellingly events are foreshadowed. In other words, it feels a bit like a throwback, to me. There is a certainty to it all, a lack of the moral and factual ambiguity that marks adult literature, particularly recent literary fiction. Of course, this is a children’s book so it necessarily provides its young readers with the confidence that Bod will prevail, even as it frightens them that maybe he won’t.

I enjoyed the different world of children’s literature. I liked the interlude it provided between more demanding works. And I enjoyed the story. It was a good story and it was well told. I gained back a bit of credibility with my daughter. Best of all, though, my daughter and I were able to share and bond over the story. I will treasure the book for that.