W.O.MITCHELL AT MABEL LAKE

We know that W.O., (1914-1998) the beloved author of Who Has Seen The Wind, and many other books and radio plays including Jake and The Kid, was a remarkable character. In fact my chapter on him in Stories About Storytellers has the sub-title “Character, and Creator of Characters.”

He and Merna were also creators of children, who have proved to be interesting  writers. The prime example is Orm, who with his wife Barbara wrote the fascinating two-part biography of his father. I proudly published them with Volume One simply called “W.O.”, and Volume Two grandly entitled “Mitchell”. But second son Hugh, a former teacher, has now come forward as a writer. Thanks to Alan Twigg’s B.C Bookworld, I came across an essay from Hugh that appears in a new book called Flowing Through Time: Stories of Kingfisher and Mabel Lake.

First, the location. Mabel Lake is in eastern B.C., just south of the Trans-Canada highway, near Enderby, north of Vernon. Its location made it easy for Albertans like W.O. (based in High River, then Calgary) to drive west into the mountains, through Banff,  find a spot for a cottage beside a lake, then build a summer retreat. That was what W.O. did in 1963, on Mabel Lake.

And that’s the subject of Hugh’s fond essay, called simply “The Mitchell Family at Mabel Lake”. But nothing to do with Bill was simple. As Hugh puts it, gently, “Summers at ‘the lake’ were pretty exciting. Life with W.O. Mitchell was never dull….”

For example, people on the lake used to honk for someone to come in a boat to the parking lot to bring them across to their cabin. Each cabin devised a ritual honk (short-short-long, for instance). On this occasion , Hugh tells us, “W.O. was up on the roof trying to finish mortaring  the chimney cap for the fireplace that he had built that summer. He was engrossed in the delicate finishing touches of the chimney cap with a small triangular trowel. Doing delicate finishing work on anything except writing was not one of his fortes.”

Hugh goes on:  “Across the river mouth , Mrs Van Fossen had just arrived from shopping in Enderby and started the ritual honking to get a ride to her cabin.”The honking went on and on. “Dad was just reaching inside the chimney cap to smooth out a grout line as Mrs. Van Fossen laid on the horn. Startled, W.O. dropped the little trowel down the chimney and it settled on top of the damper plate. He looked up and screamed across the river mouth, “Shit! Shit! Shit! Get off that God-damned horn!”

The crisis continued, producing a very memorable image. Hugh tells us: “He could not reach the trowel from inside the fireplace hearth, and thus it became another extended delicate operation to retrieve the trowel from inside the chimney USING HIS FISHING ROD (my emphasis). Mabel Lake cabin owners were not surprised to see W.O. Mitchell up on the roof fishing in his chimney”.

The stories go on, many dealing with W.O.’s fishing and boating adventures. One of them I heard him tell to my Publishing Workshop at The Banff Centre, around 1985. For reasons that made sense to him, W.O. was alone in his boat on the empty lake when spilled gasoline on his pants made it necessary for him to tinker with the engine stark naked. When he stood up and arched to ease his acing back, he found that a silent sailboat had drifted alongside him, full of pop-eyed sailors of both sexes. W.O. told us that he instantly called out. “What class is that boat?”

Hugh tells the story of how W.O.s love of a bargain let him down: “Dad was always exclaiming what a great deal he got. He paid $5.00 per 100 board feet for the 2×4 deck boards. It didn’t turn out to be such a great deal, as the deck boards started rotting out within five years and culminated in George McClelland, former Chief Superintendent of the RCMP, plunging through an especially rotten section of the deck, getting stuck up to his midriff.” George McClelland, Hugh recalls” wasn’t a small man….We had some difficulty extracting him.”

Great stories. Somehow they make W.O.’s stories about blowing up Grandpa in the outhouse seem less amazing. Just everyday stuff.

Many thanks for sharing all this, Hugh.

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“INDESCRIBABLE”, ACCORDING TO TOMSON HIGHWAY

(Photo of Tomson Highway, left, and Doug Gibson, Toronto, June 2018, by Mark Cardwell)

As my faithful readers know, I have made a point of attending The Writers’ Union annual Margaret Laurence Lectures down through the years. The very first Lecture, at the Union AGM at Queen’s,  was given by my author Hugh MacLennan. I recall that he reported with satisfaction on a recent very frank conversation with a small boy, who was appalled by Hugh’s great age, and asked him “What does it feel like to know that you’ll soon be dead?”

Other lectures have been memorable, usually in a different way, as Canada’s finest authors spoke about their experience of the writing life. Sometimes I , smiling benevolently as a friendly Publisher in the audience, found myself playing the role of the villain. The most notable case was in 1997, when Edna Staebler , the author of books like “Food That Really Schmecks”, was the selected author. Edna, born into a Mennonite family in 1906, was a sweet little old lady, a smiling apple-cheeked veteran, worthy of her proud Publisher’s support on this important evening.

IN ACROSS CANADA BY STORY I write: “At the end of a long publishing day I drove to Kingston to support good old Edna. She chose to take the audience through her career as an author, book by book. When she came to the first book  published by M&S, she said: “Now I see Doug Gibson in the audience, and Doug, I have to say that when it came to Promoting “More Food That Really Schmecks”, I was really disappointed by the job that M&S did. Really disappointed.”

The audience of writers — not all of whom believed that their own publishers had promoted their own books ideally, successfully attracting every possible reader — was loudly delighted.

It got worse. Every book we had published, it seemed, had been badly promoted, although each time Edna was “sorry to have to say this, Doug”. Eventually I sat there in the middle of the audience (my neighbours drawing away from me) with my hands clasped protectively over my head. It was an admission that I was being publicly beaten up, from the stage, by a sweet little lady, now aged ninety-one, but still kicking.”

In later years authors like Alistair MacLeod had some fun at my expense, and in St. John’s in 2014 Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Lecture was so critical of the publishing hotshot named Gibson who took forever to decide to publish Man Descending (until HE gave ME a deadline) that friends in the audience later asked me for my side of the story. I simply said that Guy’s story was too good not to be true.

So this year, at the Writers’ Union AGM in Toronto I was excited to attend the Margaret Laurence lecture delivered by Tomson Highway.

Tomson’s career led us to expect something a little different, and he had great fun providing it. We all learned more Cree than we had known before. Since Tomson, who spends a lot of time in Europe, is fluent in  French, and Spanish and Portuguese and much else, there was a feast of language behind his witty talk.

But words failed him the next day , when I ran into him in the corridor. My friend Mark Cardwell was with me , with his trusty camera, when I shyly went up to Tomson, whom I had never met. When I introduced myself, he said: “Doug Gibson? DOUG GIBSON? THE INDESCRIBABLE DOUG GIBSON?”

It must be true. Tomson Highway said so. I like to think that this is one of the few cases when “indescribable” is used in a good way.

A GREAT HONOUR FOR MY FIRST BOOK

Here is what Terry  Fallis entered, at Kobo’s request, to celebrate Canada Day this year. Look at the authors he chose :– Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Donald Jack………and Douglas Gibson!
Read on.

5 books that say “Canada”

Posted by Terry Fallis June  30, 2017
Fallis Terry_2008_cr. Tim Fallis

1. The Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies captures small town life in Canada as only one who grew up in several small towns could. With its gentle humour, brilliant sentences, and captivating storytelling, this, to me, is a supremely Canadian tale.

2. Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler

This fine novel tells the story of three generations of the Gursky family and cuts a broad swath through the country’s history and geography. Any story that includes a plane crash, rum-running, and the Franklin Expedition puts a check mark in the “Canadian” box.

3. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Few stories capture the distinctly Canadian humour, tone, and sensibility as well as Anne of Green Gables. While the musical may now be more popular than the book, it’s well worth revisiting the L.M. Montgomery’s classic for a few laughs, a few tears and a dollop of national pride.

4. Three Cheers for Me by Donald Jack

If you want to read a hilarious novel that captures the Canadian role in the Great War through the eyes of an oblivious horse-faced farm boy from Eastern Ontario (and who doesn’t?), I give you Three Cheers for Me. Written by the three-time Leacock Medal winning Donald Jack, this is a comic masterpiece, and oh so Canadian.

5. Stories About Storytellers by Douglas Gibson

Canadian writers have played a profound role in shaping how we view our own country. The history of Canadian literature is a critical strand running through the history of Canada. Why not read about some wonderful Canadian storytellers in a fantastic book by Douglas Gibson, an editor and publisher who has worked with some of Canada’s most influential writers including Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, and W.O. Mitchell? You’ll thank me.

Terry Fallis is a Canadian author and two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, winning in 2008 for his debut novel, The Best Laid Plans, and in 2015 for No Relation. To date, all five of his published books have been shortlisted for the award.

COMMENTARY

You can imagine how thrilled I am to be in this company. I have strong links with all of the other four authors.

I edited many ROBERTSON DAVIES books, starting with World of Wonders, the third in the trilogy started by Fifth Business. It is, of course, a superb book, and features in my show about CANADA’S GREATEST STORYTELLERS.

I knew MORDECAI RICHLER well, although I never edited his work. He, too, features in my new STORYTELLERS show, where he and I feud as his weary letters begin  “Gibson, Gibson”. Much of the excellent Solomon Gursky book is set in Magog, around the corner from my beloved North Hatley in the Eastern Townships.

Like every Canadian publisher, I published several of LUCY MAUD MONTGOMERY’S books, including Anne of Green Gables,( with an “E”). I talk about her in the STORYTELLERS show, noting that it was her Emily of New Moon that set young Alice Munro off on a writing career.

DONALD JACK is a great hidden comic genius. He  brought out  Three Cheers For Me in 1962, and its Wodehousian treatment of Bartholomew Bandy’s adventures among the horrors of Flanders Fields raised many eyebrows. When he brought me a second volume in 1972 ( entitled That’s Me In The Middle), I reshuffled the new book and Three Cheers For Me, so that they became part of  a continuing series.  Don generously signed the 1972 edition of Three Cheers For Me  with the words “For the originator of The Bandy Papers, Douglas Gibson”, so you can imagine how pleased I was to find him included here by Terry.

As for DOUGLAS GIBSON, words fail. But if anyone reading this has not yet read Stories About Storytellers, I hope you’ll see if  you agree with Terry’s generous assessment.

Remembering Stuart McLean

Stuart McLean was once my boss. He was the Producer of the CBC radio show, Sunday Morning, from 1981 to 1983, and I was the programme’s weekly movie reviewer from ‘81 to ‘84.

It was a whirlwind environment, a little like a student newspaper, with excited, bright, young people dashing out on to Jarvis Street from the old red-brick building to record street noises for the final section of a profile that was already 95% “in the can”.  Stuart was right at home in the middle of the whirlwind, chatting, and laughing, and losing things, and encouraging the troops. He was, as everyone who saw him on-stage knows, a resolutely “aw-shucks” guy. Word filtered out that his cheerfully unrehearsed acceptance speeches, when his show won international awards, caused scowls at “The Kremlin”, the CBC headquarters.

Yet I know that he could be an inspiring leader. My contact with the show was through the superb Suanne Kelman (who fiercely taught me “how to breathe” on the air) and after 10 rigorous takes and re-takes of my 3-minute piece, I would go home before noon on Saturday. Once, my restful afternoon was marked by a phone call from Stuart.

“Doug, I’ve just heard your review for tomorrow’s show, and I wanted to tell you how great it is to have you doing your movie reviews for us.” Other compliments followed. And I swelled with pride and pleasure, and remembered the incident fondly, as you can see.

Some years later, I almost became his boss, or at least his Publisher. I had just started my own imprint at M&S and had lunch with Stuart to discuss his future, since at the time he was selling traffic barrier equipment, which was not the ideal road to success. Stuart had some interesting ideas for heading into the book world. I warmly encouraged him to develop his plans for a book. But I explained that I was busy bringing major authors who had already published with me to my new Douglas Gibson Books imprint. To be loyal to Avie Bennett, who had arranged my new home at M&S, I suggested that I would be glad to promote his new book idea to Adrienne Clarkson and her team at M&S. I did so, with enthusiasm…..and was astonished when later they turned him down. Fourteen Penguin titles, and more than a million book sales later……

The only figure I can compare Stuart with – as an author who became a beloved performer across the country… is W.O.Mitchell.  Stuart and he met through their mutual friend Peter Gzowski, and I know they hit it off right away. I like to think that W.O. spotted Stuart as a blood brother, another guy who loved travelling around and meeting ordinary Canadians in places large and small. I believe that W.O. knew by instinct that he would turn into a major storyteller. Certainly Stuart loved spending time with W.O., and was a good friend to him.

For instance, when we issued tapes of W.O.’s stage performances, it took me no time at all to persuade Stuart to contribute a fond Introduction to “An Evening With W.O. Mitchell”. He said “Hello, I’m Stuart McLean, and I’ve been a fan of W.O. Mitchell ever since I heard him read when I was in University. So I’m delighted to be part of this Tribute to W.O. Mitchell, the Writer and the Performer…”

After W.O. died, a fund-raiser for the Writers’ Trust featured an auction for one of his snuff-boxes. Stuart was a determined bidder until almost the end, when a very rich rival won. When the Mitchell family learned of Stuart’s disappointment, they sent him another of W.O.’s snuff-boxes. Orme Mitchell still remembers the touchingly grateful letter he received.

As for me, I stayed in touch with my old friend.  I remember disappointing him at The Royal York at a Bookseller’s Awards Ceremony where he was the MC. When I stepped up to the platform to accept an award won by Alice Munro, he said “Aww, it’s Doug”, in sinking tones. Once I was the MC at A Different Drummer Books event in Burlington, where by contrast I had fun at his expense.

The fun stopped when he fell ill with melanoma, although in our phone chat early in 2016 he was very upbeat, confident about the odds. When I called ten days ago, I spoke to Stuart’s son, Robbie, who told me that his father was sleeping. Two days before he died I left a fond message on his answering machine, a message into limbo from an old friend, who now knows that it’s always later than you think.

A NEW SHOW: 150 YEARS OF GREAT CANADIAN STORYTELLERS . . . 1867–2017

A new stage performance by DOUGLAS GIBSON, announced here first, to my faithful blog friends!

From coast to coast to coast (Ungava Bay, aboard an Adventure Canada cruise ship!) former publisher Douglas Gibson has given over 160 performances of the dramatized versions of his first two books. Against the backdrop of the brilliant author caricatures by Anthony Jenkins (of Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Pierre Trudeau, and many others), he has told behind-the-scenes stories about the men and women he got to know well.

Internationally, he has taken his show celebrating Canadian authors to London (where he fell off the Canada House stage, a West-End triumph) to Beijing, to Mexico, and beyond.

Now he has created a new show – again with the help of Anthony Jenkins – to celebrate our greatest storytellers  since Confederation….English, French, and Indigenous. People in many Canadian communities may think that staging  the show is a fine way to celebrate our Sesquicentennial.

The power-point show follows our history decade by decade. Each decade begins with a burst of Canadian music from the time. On screen we see a familiar photo of the decade (“Ah, yes,that was the time of the Klondike Gold Rush”), and then several iconic pieces of Canadian art, by people like Cornelius Krieghoff, or Lawren Harris, or Mary Pratt.  Then the burst of music stops, and the caricature of the chosen author appears, and fascinating (boiling his moccasins?) stories about the chosen author and his or her best book are excitingly told (in front of a train?)

Usually, in each decade only one novelist in French and one in English will be chosen. This means that the show will be controversial (“How could you leave out X from the 1980s?”), but Doug Gibson will be happy to provoke spirited debate about our best authors. And while the show will be in English, everything on the screen, such as book titles and the names of the translation (“Kamouraska and Kamouraska, you say?”) will be bilingual. We all may learn more about our greatest authors, including the epic Haida storyteller, Skaay.

To learn more about booking the show,which will run from May-December 2017, please consult www.douglasgibsonbooks.com, or contact Jane Gibson at jane1929@rogers.com ,or phone 416 489 1929.

Please spread the news.

CHARLOTTE GRAY, THE SESQUICENTENNIAL, AND SASKATOON BERRIES

I’d like to recommend a fine new book, one that should appeal to anyone who enjoys this blog. The book is THE PROMISE OF CANADA by Charlotte Gray.  The sub-title ties it very clearly to our 1867-2017 Sesquicentennial. “150 Years — People And Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country”.

You may already know the book, because it has been widely and enthusiastically reviewed, and has become a best-seller, getting a head start on the many Sesquicentennial books that will mark 2017. That flying start reflects well on its publisher . It’s brought out by Phyllis Bruce Editions at Simon & Schuster Canada, another example of the success that thoughtful editorial imprints can bring to a publishing  world that often seems overly obsessed with shallow marketing of shallow books. It also reflects the respect that readers and reviewers have for Charlotte Gray, the author of nine previous  books.

I met Charlotte soon after she came to Canada in 1979. She had known my brother Peter in Britain, and he had told her to look up his big brother, who ran Macmillan’s publishing programme in Toronto, and might have useful advice for a young writer newly arrived in mysterious Canada. I remember our chat, where I advised her to write for Bob Fulford’s “Saturday Night”, and encouraged her in a general way. I wish I could claim that she owes her success to me…and I wish even more fervently that I had been smart enough to sign her up for the books that she was soon producing with great success.

As an immigrant to Canada Charlotte soon became aware of what a remarkable place we’ve inherited. One of her early books (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill) hints at her own experience as an English newcomer. Over time, as her knowledge grew, with fascinating months in Dawson City enlivening her Gold Diggers: Striking it Rich in the Klondike, she became a Canadian enthusiast, as every page of the new book shows.

A personal note: the very first page of The Promise of Canada, the end-papers, shows the start of the 1967 canoe race in the wake of the voyageurs, east from Alberta’s Rocky Mountain House all  the way to the finish line at Expo in Montreal. Paddling in the stern of the Manitoba canoe is none other than Don Starkell. That’s my friend Don , the author of both Paddle To The Amazon and then Paddle To The Arctic.

As you’d expect, Don’s Manitoba crew won the race, arriving in Montreal 104 days later, amidst cheers and sirens and fireworks. But there is a sad footnote, recorded in Paddle To The Amazon. Don had a sales job in Winnipeg, and knew that he would need time off  to paddle across the country in this national celebration. In his words:

“I asked for a leave of absence, and it was flatly denied.

“Why?” I remember asking my supervisor.

“We just can’t do that,” he said, and that was that.”

So Don quit his job , although money was tight. Oh yes, the name of his employer, so uninterested in this piece of unfolding Canadian history that it wouldn’t give a salesman a leave of absence to take part in it? The Canadian Pacific Railway.

 

And Saskatoon berries? My last blog attracted some attention by talking about the role of Saskatoon berries in the making of pemmican, the well-preserved, light, portable, food that fuelled the fur trade. What many people don’t realise is that the Saskatoon berry ( formally Amelanchier alnifolia,) includes 15 related species, and is found right across Canada. I once won an argument with a dismissive Albertan at a publishing event in Toronto, where “you don’t have any saskatoon berries ”  by nipping out and picking a few serviceberries on Bloor Street. The party-goers enjoyed them when I returned, even the surprised Albertan.

I’ve found them , and eaten them, in every province. Sometimes they’re “serviceberries”. Sometimes they’re “June-berries” in tribute to their early arrival. In his superb book about Nature in Nova Scotia, Dancing on the Shore, Harold Horwood waxes indignantly lyrical about them:

“How much better is the Newfoundland name chuckly pear! Serviceberry indeed! And how much uglier the American name, shadbush! But whatever you call them, their blooming is a high point of the year. At Annapolis there are several species, some of them small shrubs, others growing into trees twenty-five feet tall. When they bloom in mid-May the woods on every side are dressed in great veils of pink and white, for though all the flowers are white, some species have pink sepals, and leaves that are red when they first unfold. The great drift of blossoms fill every dark space along the edges of the woods. I have never seen any forest anywhere more beautiful with bloom than the Annapolis woodlands during the brief flowering of the chuckly pears.

“Later, the children will gather the fruit, almost live on it while it is at its peak, and perhaps I’ll even turn a gallon or so of the purple berries into wine….”

It’s notable that the very first English-speaking explorer of the Prairies noted the crunchy Saskatoon berry with approval. In June, 1690 Henry Kelsey left York Factory and headed West with some indigenous traders. In the words of The Canadian Encyclopedia, he “wintered at The Pas, Manitoba, before striking out on foot across the prairie, possibly as far as the Red Deer River.”

Incredibly, Kelsey wrote a large part of his report to his Hudson Bay Company superiors IN VERSE. Here he is in, we think, Eastern Saskatchewan:

” So far I have spoken concerning of the spoil

And now will accot. (give an account ) of that same Countrye soile

Which hither part is very thick of wood

Affords small nuts with little cherryes very good…”

And there you have it, a literary discovery! The very first review of the eating delights of the Saskatoon berry, from 1691. You read it here first.

 

IN PRAISE OF JIM MUNRO

We all lost an important friend this week when Jim Munro died in Victoria. He was a major figure on Canada’s book scene for over 60 years, a fact that was recognised in 2014 when he received the Order of Canada for “his vital championship of countless Canadian writers and for his sustained community engagement.”

In 1963 he and his wife Alice moved from Vancouver to set up a bookstore in Victoria. They worked together in the store, and raised three daughters, a life well described in Sheila Munro’s memoir, Lives of Mothers and Daughters. In 1972, the Munros divorced, with Alice returning to Ontario to write, and Jim staying in Victoria to create the most beautiful bookstore in Canada. If that sounds like excessive praise, consider the fact that recently National Geographic Magazine ranked Munro’s books, in a former Royal Bank building at the heart of downtown’s Government Street, as the third best bookstore IN THE WORLD.

I was a frequent visitor. As my second book, Across Canada By Story, makes clear, I’ve always loved roaming around the country, meeting authors and people in the Canadian book world. Seeing Jim again was always a delight. I’d drop in to the store, chat with wise book people on staff like Dave Hill, then join Jim in the office tucked away just to the right of the front door, to discuss the book trade in general. As a Canadian Bookseller of the Year, more than once, he was heavily involved in bookselling issues (chains, Amazon, Canadian agencies,”Buying around”, e-books, and much else — we never got on to colouring books) and I always learned a lot from this cheery, bluff man (The under-used word “bluff” is precise, for this friendly, red-faced fellow with, latterly, a neat beard.)

The same pleasure applied to his visits to the annual Canadian Booksellers Association trade fair, summer events usually held in Toronto, when meeting with Jim and his team was always a highlight of a major event in the publishing calendar. Down through the years, as a shrewd local link with the publishing world, he sold untold millions of books to grateful readers. The cultural impact is hard to over-state.

Long after their divorce he remained a strong supporter of Alice’s writing, and as her editor and publisher I found myself receiving advice about this or that forthcoming book, its title, price, and its cover. Mostly, I seemed to be doing all right.

Through the years the Munro daughters kept their links with the store and its staff. When I was in Stockholm for the Nobel Prize Ceremony in 2014, Munro’s Books leapt into the Swedish limelight. Our Ambassador to Sweden, Kenneth MacCartney,  staged a splendid celebration at lunch, inviting many Swedish literary figures to this proud event for Canada, and — ahem– some of us made speeches about Alice, the author of The Love Of A Good Woman, and many other titles dealing with affairs of the heart. It was all very fine.

Yet one of the finest moments came when the Ambassador introduced his wife, Susan, and revealed that as a student in Victoria he had courted her, successfully, while she was working in Munro’s Books.

 

A NEW TORONTO SHOW

FREE, AT THE DEER PARK LIBRARY , ON ST.CLAIR AVENUE AT YONGE STREET, ON TUESDAY , DECEMBER 6 AT 2 pm.