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Last Modified: December 9, 2022
Graphic for "Who Has Seen the Wind Comes Back Home"
Who Has Seen the Wind Comes Home to Alberta

By Shaun Hunter

W.O. Mitchell set his 1947 novel Who Has Seen the Wind in the Saskatchewan landscape of his childhood but he wrote, edited, celebrated, and defended his prairie classic in Alberta. Biographers Orm and Barbara Mitchell trace the story of the novel’s inception to the University of Alberta campus in the autumn of 1940. After Mitchell spent the Depression years working a patchwork of jobs in Alberta and beyond, at twenty-six he was intent on writing fiction. He was not registered in Professor F.M. Salter’s creative writing class, but when Mitchell met the professor through Merna Hirtle, the young Edmonton woman he would marry, Salter offered to read his stories-in-progress.

At their first meeting, Salter plucked four hand-written pages from a pile of Mitchell’s work. This rough, spontaneous writing about a childhood memory contained the seeds of what would become Who Has Seen the Wind.

That year, the pair met weekly in the professor’s office in the Arts Building and at Salter’s home in the nearby Garneau neighbourhood: Mitchell would mine memories of his Saskatchewan childhood and put them on the page; Salter would respond, and a novel began to take shape.

In late summer 1942, Mitchell and his bride Merna left Edmonton for Castor, east of Red Deer, where Mitchell worked as high school principal and teacher. He wrote his novel at night and on weekends in the school office.

In his Castor classroom, Mitchell would share lines from his manuscript-in-progress and invite suggestions. One of his students would later say: “I’m sure we all feel that we are part owners of Who Has Seen the Wind.

Though the Mitchells lived in Castor for only ten months, they became part of the community, and the town found its way into Mitchell’s novel-in-progress. A Chinese family, an outcast father and son, a shaggy local savant, and a caged owl became key figures in Mitchell’s tale. (The churchgoing women of Castor did not inspire the novel’s bigoted and overbearing Mrs. Abercrombie: she was modelled on women in Strathcona Baptist Church in Edmonton where Mitchell’s father-in-law served as minister.)

In the spring of 1943, Mitchell’s clash with the Castor school board sparked a similar conflict in the novel. The fracas prompted Mitchell’s resignation and move to New Dayton, a village southeast of Lethbridge.

Mitchell would later joke that the fierce southern Alberta wind that tore through New Dayton that winter of 1943/44 also blew into his novel-in-progress. “That’s what added the wind dimension to Who Has Seen the Wind, I’m telling you!”

An early chapter and other stories were published in the Atlantic Monthly and MacLean’s. Mitchell was buoyed by the commercial promise of his fiction. In New Dayton, he decided to quit teaching and commit himself to writing fulltime.

A photograph of W.O. Mitchell's house in High River.
Photo courtesy of Carolyn Ryder

Returning briefly to Edmonton in early 1945, he started the final push on the manuscript with Salter’s support. He continued the work in High River, where he and his young family moved that spring. He completed the final edits at his kitchen table at 514 8th Street SW in the west end of town. The music of writing filled the Mitchells’ red-and-white bungalow: the clatter of typewriter keys, Mitchell reading passages aloud “for sharps and flats,” and animated conversations with his first reader Merna.

Here, he wrangled with his American editor at Little, Brown, explaining the role of the prairie in the novel and the need for preserving swearing in the dialogue, and negotiating edits.

High River was also the site of a momentous phone call. In late September 1946, Mitchell learned that Ladies’ Home Journal was offering him $5000 for the right to publish a digested version of the novel for its four million subscribers. The sum was huge – today’s equivalent of $75,000.

The Mitchells headed to Calgary to celebrate in style. First, a visit to Heintzman & Co on 8th Avenue to buy a second-hand grand piano for Merna, then to the Hudson’s Bay Company to outfit Merna with new evening attire. The couple checked in at the elegant Palliser Hotel and attended its hallmark supper dance. At the piano that night was the young jazz musician Oscar Peterson. Years later, Mitchell would line the study of his Calgary home with rosewood salvaged from the hotel: perhaps a nod to that storied weekend.

When the novel was released to the public in February 1946, Mitchell autographed copies in the book department at the Eaton’s store in downtown Calgary. Soon, he would read in The Globe and Mail that his debut book was “one of the finest Canadian novels ever written.” Five decades later, Alberta literary historian George Melnyk would write that Mitchell’s “enduring classic of prairie fiction” marked the beginning of a new era in Alberta fiction.

In 1968, the Mitchells moved to Calgary. Though W.O. carried on with new projects, Who Has Seen the Wind continued to occupy his attention. In his Calgary home, Mitchell met with film producer Budge Crawley to discuss Allan King’s rocky 1977 film adaptation of the novel.

During their Calgary years, the Mitchells would celebrate the novel’s long life with the publication of each new edition—two dozen in total. One of those editions was illustrated by William Kurelek, an Alberta-born painter and writer Mitchell met in Toronto in the early 1970s.

In Calgary, Mitchell continued the battle he fought in High River to keep the book’s salty language—what he dubbed “the goddams.” In August 1978, at the same hotel where he and Merna had revelled in their first success in 1946, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada general conference voted in favour of banning the novel from school reading lists, along with several other well-known Canadian books. Enraged, Mitchell attacked the book banners with characteristic passion.

Almost twenty years later, Calgarians honoured Who Has Seen the Wind as the featured book in the city’s second annual Freedom to Read Week in February 1995. Daily pop-up readings from the novel took place in the foyer of the Glenbow Museum, located down the block from the Palliser Hotel where the novel had been challenged.

Who Has Seen the Wind also has ties to Banff through Mitchell’s long career there as an engaged and generous writing teacher. From 1973 to 1986, he directed the summer writing program at the Banff School of Fine Arts, mentoring aspiring writers in the same free-fall method he used with Professor Salter to craft Who Has Seen the Wind.

In the summer of 1976, seventeen-year-old U of A science student Glenn Rollans travelled to the Banff Centre, intent on studying with the man who wrote Who Has Seen the Wind. Rollans first read the novel in high school in Edmonton and the book has been part of his life ever since.

As the new owner of Freehand Books, Rollans recently transcribed the novel for the 75th anniversary edition—a chance to do a close reading of a book he calls “large-spirited and perceptive.” For Rollans, Freehand’s new edition, complete with Kurelek’s illustrations and a foreword by one of Mitchell’s U of A students, novelist Frances Itani, is an opportunity to remind people of a “humane” book and a man who influenced a generation of writers from Alberta and across Canada.

Freehand Books will launch the 75th anniversary edition of Who Has Seen the Wind on the evening of November 29th at Calgary’s Central Library. Acclaimed Alberta author Sharon Butala will pay tribute to Mitchell’s life and legacy and the Writers’ Guild of Alberta will announce a W.O. Mitchell endowment fund. All are welcome. Reserve your free ticket here.

Headshot of Shaun Hunter.

Shaun Hunter is the author of Calgary through the Eyes of Writers (Rocky Mountain Books, 2018). As the 2020 Calgary Public Library/Heritage Calgary historian in residence, she created a digital literary map of Calgary marking more than 500 sites in the city’s storied landscape. Her map of Calgary’s 1920s literary scene City of Romance: The Literary World of 1920s Calgary has just been released as part of the Calgary Atlas Project. You can find Shaun at Author photo courtesy of Shaun Hunter.


Cover of "Who Has Seen the Wind" by W.O. Mitchell. Who Has Seen the Wind: 75th Anniversary Illustrated Edition

W.O. Mitchell (CA)

Published: Nov 08, 2022 by Freehand Books
ISBN: 9781990601125

Cover of "Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers" by Shaun Hunter.

Calgary through the Eyes of Writers

Shaun Hunter (CA)

Published: Dec 04, 2018 by RMB | Rocky Mountain Books
ISBN: 9781771602730