CanLit Canon Review #11: W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind

In an attempt to make himself a better Canadian, Craig MacBride is reading and reviewing the books that shaped this country.

Published in 1947, W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind arrived six years after As For Me and My House, Sinclair Ross’s Prairie-based depression trigger, and it has the same message as its predecessor: people die, you never find God, and crops always fail.

Who Has Seen the Wind is split into four parts, with the main character, Brian O’Connall, shown at four years old, six years old, eight years old, and eleven years old, respectively. Brian lives with his parents, his younger brother, and his stern Scottish grandmother. He goes to school and to church. He has a dog and he has friends.

There really is no solid story. The book simply chronicles Brian’s life and the lives of the people he comes in contact with, all of it occasionally punctuated with crises and adventures, as life is. What holds the book together is Brian’s search for God. Or, not so much God, but a higher feeling that, in the beginning, is connected to the idea of God, a feeling that made Brian “suddenly sad, his throat aching, his heart filled with unbearable sweet and maddening melancholy.”

He spends the novel trying to nail down what that feeling is:

“The wind could do this to him, when it washed through poplar leaves, when it set telephone wires humming and twanging down an empty prairie road, when it ruffled the feather on one of Sherry’s roosters standing forlorn in a bare yard, when it carried to him the Indian smell of a burning straw stack…. Always, he noted, the feeling was most exquisite upon the prairie or when the wind blew.”

Mitchell, who was born and raised in Saskatchewan, shows off his talents in two ways throughout Who Has Seen the Wind. With one, he pulls thoughts apart:

“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 fall, 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.”

With his other main talent, he focuses through dialogue, like in this conversation Brian has with his dad after Brian accidentally kills a baby pigeon.

“It’s dead, Spalpeen,” Brian’s father said gently.

“Why?”

“It happens to things,” his father said.

“Why does it happen to things?” He turned up his face to his father, cheeks stained with drying tears.

“That’s the way they end up.”

Who Has Seen the Wind is not perfect, as As For Me and My House is perfect, but it is excellent, and it fills the reader with a longing for the Prairie, or at least for the feeling of the Prairie, for that unbearably sweet and maddening melancholy that seems so easily captured there.

About the author

Craig MacBride

Craig MacBride (@craigmacbride) is a Toronto-based writer and communications consultant.

By Craig MacBride