Summary: Living in smalltown Saskatchewan in the 1930s, Brian is experiencing his childhood in a harsh environment based on survival against the elements and each other. A sensitive child, Brian has a sense of there being something deeper to life, but can’t quite grasp what it is. This feeling flickers throughout the years, becoming stronger when he is around the younger Ben, but great loss enters his life increasing his questions and despair. Brian’s journey through childhood is highlighted by the parallel stories of the people who live in his community, and influence his reach for something more, whether they know it or not.
Number of Pages: 301
Age Range: 17-18
Review: Where do I start? There is so much to say about a Canadian classic like Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell.
First of all, I love Mitchell’s style of writing. He has an incredible ability to give a character flavour and personality through their dialogue. He also is able to deliver one-line zingers that get straight to the heart of a situation. Take this one for example: “In the years they had attended school, Tang and Vooie had been subjected to periodic ostracism, a mild form of persecution usually started by Mariel, a full-faced little sadist of ten years.” (W.O. Mitchell, page 141) I laughed because Mitchell’s writing is funny at times, and I cried because his characters touched me.
Mitchell’s book is a seminal piece of work because it captures a slice of smalltown politics and prairie life through honestly portrayed characters with complicated motivations. Through the childhood of Brian, Mitchell explores the impact of the land and nature on human life, as well as how some use ‘faith’ to cover hardened hearts and a multitude of sins.
There are so many beautiful moments in this book: the love of Brian’s parents for him and his brother Bobbie, the younger Ben’s connection to nature and God-like ability to pop up whenever someone or something is being harmed or tortured, the devotion Mr. Digby and Miss Thompson had to their students, the wonderful animal characters and Brian’s growing awareness from a tender age of the wondrous and divine.
As Brian knows from the beginning though, life is filled with both sorrow and laughter. He is continually reminded of this throughout the story as he grows, but still remains touched by something more. Brian is not bitter, but is searching for meaning and purpose. Fortunately he has so many people in his life who love him and are willing to help him with his questions. While some townspeople have less than stellar motivations, there are others like Brian also struggling with the concepts of God and faith in a harsh reality.
Who Has Seen the Wind is a powerful character driven story that encourages readers to ponder what life is really about. And like Brian, I know I haven’t figured out everything either, but I hope one day I will get to a more complete understanding of life as he hopes as well. Books like Mitchell’s are part of getting there.
“Many interpreters of the Bible believe the wind to be symbolic of Godhood. In this story I have tried to present sympathetically the struggle of a boy to understand what still defeats mature and learned men – the ultimate meaning of the cycle of life. To him are revealed in moments of fleeting vision the realities of birth, hunger, satiety, eternity, death. They are moments when an inquiring heart seeks finality, and the chain of darkness is broken.
This is the story of a boy and the wind.” – Preface from Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell
“Shadows lengthen; the sunlight fades from cloud to cloud, kindling their torn edges as it dies from softness down the prairie sky. A lone farmhouse window briefly blazes; the prairie bathes in mellower, yellower light, and the sinking sun becomes a low and golden glowing on the prairie’s edge.” – From Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell, page 61
“Before the maple dresser opaled with little birds’-eyes Maggie O’Connal, with her dark head tilted as though in listening attitude, braided her hair for the night. It was like being on the other side of a fence. Other people, she decided, must feel the smae about the bits that had broken away from their own bodies to live on the other side of the fence – to have lives of their own. Dear God, she wished fiercely, make them turn out all right – not just all right: world beaters – the best there was. She heard the cavern sounds of the coal shovel below. Like their father – that would be enough.” – Maggie from Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell, page 100
“‘What’s real. I’ll tell you – the beginnin’ – that’s gettin’ born: the end – that’s gettin’ dead . . . Both of them is real – good an’ real.’
The bell tinkled again, and Brian O’Connal stood by the counter. Milt paid no attention to him. ‘In between there’s hunger an’ there’s sleepin’ an’ wakin’ an’ there’s wimmen an’ this here brew at the Ben’s. Them things is real. Along comes Powelly or your friend got diddled outa his church – whatta they do? Somebody dies, they’re right handy with the Heavenly Land on High an’ a shiny box an’ flowers an’ a lotta things ain’t got nothin’ whatsoever to do with bein’ dead. You know what death is? Rotting – stink – dust – an’ you’re back to the prairie again. Take birth – what’s that? Sprinkling with water? Announcement cards? Seegars? Hospital ward? Hell no! Blood an’ water an’ somethin’ new for a while – mebbe a shoemaker that wishes he was a tree.’
‘Have you seen my brother?’ asked Brian.
‘They’re all a-scairt of reality unless they thought her up. Scairt silly; so they pretty her up – ‘cept one of ’em. God – I wish I was a tree!’
Brian on tiptoe at the counter started at Mr. Palmer. He saw Mr. Digby in his stocking feet with an intent look upon his face. ‘You forgot thinking, Milt.’
‘No – I didn’t forget her – but I’ll throw her in jist to please you – ’tain’t worth a damn. Death – birth – love – hunger – wakin’ – sleepin’ – drinkin’ . . . That’s reality – not what you think about them.'” Conversation about the reality of life between Mr. Palmer and Mr. Digby from Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell, pages 138-139
“The buck and the doe that Mr. Hoffman had brought home came of a particularly fertile strain, the boys found out during the course of the summer; they were delighted as litter after litter made its appearance and the rabbit population of Hoffman’s back yard increased by arithmetic progression. The increase soon became an alarming thing, however, as it became apparent that few of the progeny seemed inclined to death and that none seemed to have heard of Malthusian theory. The boys began to have difficulty in finding food for the rabbits.” – Brian and his friends run into trouble when Fat gets rabbits for Easter from Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell, pages 165-166
“A forever-and-forever sound it had, forever and for never. Forever and forever the prairie had been, before there was a town, before he had been, or his father, or his father, or his father before him. Forever for the prairie; never for his father – never again.
People were forever born; people forever died, and never were again. Fathers died and sons were born; the prairie was forever, with its wind whispering through the long, dead grasses, through the long and endless silence. Winter came and spring and dall, then summer and winter again; the sun rose and set again, and everything that was once – was again – forever and forever. But for man, the prairie whispered – never – never. For Brian’s father – never.
And as the boy stood with the prairie stretching from him, he knew that things were different now – forever and forever – forever the dark well of his mother’s loneliness, forever the silence that would never end.” – Brian pondering the greater themes of life from Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell, page 245