Orm and Barb Mitchell spent the weekend in Weyburn to attend the celebrations at the Weyburn Wheat Festival for the centennial of the birthday of Orm’s father, W.O. Mitchell, renowned Canadian author who was born and raised in Weyburn.
The couple, who now reside near Peterborough, Ont., shared many of their own memories of W.O., as well as some of the stories he would tell, some of which were woven into his stories and novels, like the Canadian literary classic, “Who Has Seen the Wind”, and others like “Jake and the Kid”, “The Kite” and “Roses Are Difficult Here”.
Some of the memories were sparked by visiting with local residents at a reception held on Friday evening in the historic W.O. Mitchell house on Sixth Street, currently owned by Jim and Kelly Linnell.
The house itself figured into some of W.O.’s stories, noted Orm, as he and wife Barb were taken on a tour of the house, recalling what it looked like when he visited the house as a child.
One story his father told was that there was a large pool table up on the third floor, and W.O. and his brothers had a game where they took their shoes and socks off and stood on the pool table, and fired pool balls at each other’s feet.
He also recalled stories about playing in the dumbwaiter, which is no longer to be found in the house, as they would climb in and pull on the ropes to go up or down in the house. The reference in “Roses are Difficult Here” to this playing likely came from his experiences in this house, said Orm.
“It was a grand house in his time, and it still is a grand house,” he said.
He told some stories from W.O. prior to the start of the “Jake and the Kid” play on both Friday and Saturday evenings, plus he and Barb gave readings of his works on Saturday afternoon to a crowd of around 35 people at the Weyburn Public Library.
After the readings, they signed copies of “Jake and the Kid”, with copies of the book provided by the library for anyone who wanted one.
At Friday’s play opening, which was held at the T.C. Douglas Centre, Orm noted that W.O.’s writing career began with the publishing of his first short story, “Elbow Room”, in Maclean’s magazine in 1941, and his first novel was “Who Has Seen the Wind”, his most acclaimed novel, published in 1944.
“He was so good at creating the character and the ethos of a prairie town. He was so good at that,” said Orm of his father, in referring to depictions of “Crocus” (which was Weyburn) and other towns in reference to High River, where he lived for many years. In some cases, such as in the book “The Kite”, the town itself was a character.
Orm noted that the separate deaths of his father, when he was seven years old, and later as an adult when his mother died, both had impacts on his career as a writer.
To that end, much of “Who Has Seen the Wind” was autobiographical, as he related some of the questions and struggles he dealt with when his father Orm passed away, and his grandmother came to live with them in the house on Sixth Street.
“He and his father had a very close relationship — then he was on his own, with his mother and grandmother. His description of Brian’s feelings (in “Who Has Seen the Wind”), that’s right out of his own feelings, and where he talked about sitting in the caragana bushes with a friend, that was here along the side of the house,” said Orm, as he visited at the reception in his father’s house.
He referred to one scene in “Wind” where Brian was playing cards after the funeral, and the friend asked the question, “Where is the King of Hearts?”
“Of course, this was a reference to his father, who was his King of Hearts,” said Orm, adding there was also a reference to the words, “He was loved by all who knew him”, as being on the tombstone; there was some doubt about the words when a documentary film crew couldn’t find them. This was in fact on O.S. Mitchell’s tombstone, but the grass had overgrown it at the base and hid the words. During a visit to the Hillcrest Cemetery later on, Orm was able to uncover the words and passed that on to his father, who was happy to hear those words were actually there.
“It was true, O.S. was very much loved by the community; he did a lot of philanthropic work,” said Orm, noting his grandfather was involved in setting up the Ag Society, among other things.
Orm recalled a story W.O. often told him, where he teased his grandmother incessantly and she would try to get him with her cane, but he knew the distance perfectly, and was always able to evade it.
Then one day, he heard about a contest Coke had, with a folding cardboard circus that came with the bottle. He asked his grandmother for money for this circus toy, knowing she loved Coke. Her response, in a thick Scottish brogue, was, “No. I wouldn’a pee in your ear if your brain was on fire.”
Prior to reading a selection about “Daddy Sherrow”, who turned 111 years of age in “The Kite”, Barb mentioned that W.O. didn’t really like getting older, and wondered what he would’ve thought of the celebrations of his 100th birthday.
Later, when his mother died in 1960 and he returned to Weyburn for the funeral, he had been struggling professionally at that time, said Orm. Being back here and talking to people he knew, he began to write pieces as he reminisced about growing up, and then he performed these pieces for audiences; as Orm pointed out, this rejuvenated his career at a time when he was suffering from a major writer’s block.
“He certainly loved to tell stories. When he wrote the reminiscent pieces, they were a big part of his rehabilitation from the depression he suffered after his mother’s death. He said later he probably should’ve gotten professional help, but these pieces, which he performed, were very important in getting his writing back,” said Orm.
Part of the struggle was, he spent a number of years working on a novel called, “The Alien”, which was never published; Barb noted a part of it became part of another book, “The Vanishing Point”, and meanwhile he was writing a lot of radio scripts, and some TV scripts for a show that didn’t happen.
Asked if W.O. had a good friendship with late radio broadcaster Peter Gzowski, Orm said they had a very close friendship, and W.O. helped Gzowski when he tried doing a late-night talk show. He appeared on Gzowski’s final broadcast of the radio show, “Morningside”, which was broadcast from Moose Jaw in its finale. W.O. was sick and couldn’t appear personally, but he recorded a segment which was on that last show, “which was very moving.”
Asked what it meant to have W.O.’s home town celebrate his 100th birthday, Orm said it was “huge” for him. He noted in March, the University of Calgary and the museum in High River had their celebrations of W.O., which they attended also.
“We were very moved coming here. It’s the same as when we meet people who met W.O. or responded to his stories,” said Orm.
He recalled when he and Barb interviewed author Rudy Wiebe about W.O. Mitchell’s work, he said, “If storytelling is an indication of a species progressing, then your father was the most evolved storyteller I’ve ever ran into.”
Barb added that occasions like this birthday celebration help “keep up the kite” of W.O.’s stories up for new generations to discover, as children who may not have ever read his stories before were now learning about them through the play.
This in part was what pleased them about the “Jake and the Kid” play; the couple said they loved it, and felt W.O. would have too.
“He would’ve loved the play and the energy of the kids, and the parents’ pride in seeing their kids up on the stage,” said Barb, who added she particularly enjoyed seeing the parents give their kids a standing ovation for their part in the production.
Recalling the words on his father’s tombstone in Weyburn, W.O. was asked how he wanted to be remembered, and Barb recalled his answer was, “I want to be remembered as a loving-hearted man by my children, and their children, and their children.”