In Praise of W.O.

For my third reading in Moose Jaw, I saw no obvious link to my fellow reader. This was a very good thing. Jalal Barzanji’s book, The Man in Blue Pajamas, is a prison memoir of his days in Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad, before he and his family finally managed to make it to Canada. Happily, I had no similar stories to write about. So after praising the PEN Canada help that brought Jamal to Edmonton, I simply chose to honour Saskatchewan’s own W.O. Mitchell, from Weyburn, just east of Moose Jaw. Any reading that includes a selection of stories about the unforgettable W.O. is bound to be popular. This selection from my chapter on “W.O.Mitchell: Character and Creator of Characters 1914-1997” was no exception.  People love to hear about this guy.

Later, after a Regina visit with our friends Karen and Trevor Herriot (the subject of a separate birding blog) Jane and I made a pilgrimage to Weyburn. Armed with information provided by Kam and Megan at the library, we walked the streets of the little town, which now has roughly 10,000 people. As everyone who has read Who Has Seen the Wind knows, when W.O. was a boy the open prairie lay just a couple of blocks north of his house, now close to the centre of town.

Thanks to the library’s leaflet we found the Mitchell residence at 319 Sixth Street. Nobody was at home, so we took photos and were giving up and leaving when a car drew up outside. It was Jamieson, the son of the household, who kindly invited us in and showed us around the ground floor. It was just as we had hoped — all maroon furniture against a base of old oak panels — befitting a grand 1903 house that was the best in town. Even the bevelled glass windows and doors in the book cases and the Art Nouveau metal light fixtures spoke to the deliberate standard of excellence from that time.

We also saw the Knox Presbyterian Church that the Mitchells attended, but we did not get to see the inside stained glass, “all grapes and bloody.” We peeked in at the ancient Royal Hotel (once opposite the now-gone Railway Station, although Railway Avenue remains), and visited his father’s grave in the cemetery just south of town.

I must confess that there was no sign of the cheeky gopher at the edge of the tombstone (“O.S. Mitchell. Loved by all who knew him”) that so offended young Brian/Bill when the family solemnly visited the grave.

The Weyburn Museum (the “Soo Line Museum”) contained many photos of the town from W.O.’s boyhood days (“the litmus years”) and one of his father, and of his pharmacy. We roamed the banks of the Little Souris River, in search of the famous swimming hole where W.O. and the other boys swam naked. We even saw some descendants of the cat-tails that provoked such naughty behaviour from some of Sadie Rossdance’s girls.

In the evening, having walked the streets to absorb W.O.’s Weyburn, I gave my show in the Weyburn Public Library to about 15 appreciative local people, including the local author, my friend, Joanne Bannatyne-Cugnet (A Prairie Alphabet). As usual the show ended with a tribute to W.O., and in Weyburn that seemed only right.

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Peterborough and the Mafia

One interesting side of a publisher’s life is how the families of your authors regard you. In my book I write about how in mid-summer Alistair MacLeod was hard at work finishing No Great Mischief, and I was guilty of putting unremitting pressure on him.

As the book says, “In the course of these frantic weeks I had occasion to call Alistair in Cape Breton. The phone was answered by a MacLeod son to whom I introduced myself as the man who was ruining his father’s summer, ha ha. “Oh yes,” he said, heavily, and passed the phone to Alistair.”

In the Peterborough event, held at Traill College downtown, Lewis MacLeod (who teaches in the English Department), was my host and the MC of the performance I gave there. He spoke of growing up aware of the name “Doug Gibson” as someone who distributed good things “like a second-rate Tooth Fairy” but who over time developed a more threatening side, “like a Mafioso.”

What an interesting take on the two sides of the Publisher/Editor, part Tooth Fairy and part Mafia enforcer!

In the audience were two others with family links to one of my authors, Orm Mitchell and his wife, Barb, the biographers of W.O. You can imagine my delight when Barb told me that in my acting out a phone conversation on stage, I “sounded just like W.O.!”

It’s wonderful that my friendship with W.O. and Merna has descended down to the next generation, where Jane and I are able to stay (not for the first time) with our friends Orm and Barb.

An excerpt on W.O. Mitchell on the Canadian Encyclopedia blog

Your weekly dose of Stories About Storytellers continues at the Canadian Encyclopedia blog. This week, Doug presents W.O. Mitchell, performer and mischief maker. To read the excerpt, head over to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

(Have you missed the previous excerpts? You can still read the selections on Morley CallaghanPaul Martin, Barry Broadfoot, Brian Mulroney, Mavis Gallant, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre TrudeauStephen Leacock and Alice Munro.)