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W.O.: The Life of W.O. Mitchell, Beginnings to Who Has Seen the Wind, 1914-1947

by Barbara and Ormond Mitchell

When Quill & Quire printed a list of the top 40 Canadian novels of the 20th century earlier this year, W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind ranked seventh. Renowned as one of Canada’s great storytellers at the time of his death at age 84 in 1998, W.O., as he was affectionately known, left as big a mark on Canadian literature as any member of his generation. However, this first volume of a scheduled two-volume biography of W.O.’s life does little to tell us why.

His son and daughter-in-law have done an admirable job in collecting the minute details of W.O.’s early life. The authors tell us of the premature death of W.O.’s father, the steady influence of his authoritarian mother, his failed attempt to join the Canadian Olympic team as a diver, and W.O.’s years as an actor and salesman of assorted goods from the beginning of the Great Depression to the end. The authors document W.O.’s deserved reputation as a colourful liar and teller of tall tales, silently raising the question: what would the old man have thought of this version of his life’s story, which seems to diminish where it ought to expand and which consciously turns away from mythologizing one of the country’s great yakkers, instead presenting him as fossilized history?

This is not a bad book. On the contrary, the authors have done the country’s literary community a public service. It would have been nice, however, if the work did not so often read like the work of a dutiful son repaying a debt. It would have been nice if some of W.O.’s lies could have been left intact and he had been preserved more completely as a personality sprung forth from his imagination and pegged high on all the end-of- the-century book lists.