When I was young I spent many summers in Fernie, where I stayed with my paternal grandparents. Like most grandmothers of the time, mine wanted nothing more than to push me outside in the nice weather (wearing the requisite hat, as she blamed the death of her two-year-old daughter on “sun stroke”). I preferred to be sprawled out on the living room floor with an array of reading material.
Since those early years, I have often found myself dedicating summertime to a stack of books. This summer appears to be pretty tightly booked, with most of our weekends already planned, but my always lengthy reading list is filled with many temptations. On the coffee table in front of me sits Leonardo and The Last Supper, by Canadian writer Ross King. King is the deservedly acclaimed author of many history books, most of them focusing on European subjects. Also beckoning is Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. J.B. Priestley’s English Journey appeals because it documents the writer’s 1934 tour around England by bus. The Complete Operas of Verdi is always close by so I can dip into reading about whichever opera by the great maestro has my attention at the time.
My bedside is strewn with books, including the brilliant New Yorker magazine writer Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, which I have been rereading in snippets, and Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, a birthday gift from friends. Still unopened is Tim Parks’ Italian Ways, purchased because I love reading about travel in Italy almost as much as actually visiting. I like to have several books on the go at one time, and three are lying open face down to keep my place. Okanagan Slow Road is a book I picked up in Naramata in May. It’s a lovely blend of art and personal narrative by two residents. My passion for wine is fueled by Inventing Wine by Paul Lukacs. It is a history that takes the reader through thousands of years. And I am slowly savouring Cooked, the latest literary non-fiction book by the wonderful Michael Pollan, author of one of my top 5 reads, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which has greatly influenced how I think about food.
I bring up the subject of summer reading because of a CBC Radio show I didn’t listen to on Sunday, asking listeners to call in with submissions to create a list of 100 great Canadian novels. With not much effort I could come up with my own 100 favourites. My enthusiasm for Canadian literature is largely the result of two early influences.
The first was Peter Gzowski, the unsurpassed CBC broadcaster who also gets credit for helping me appreciate the amazing depth and breadth of this great country. Second was Vera Reid, my literature class instructor at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technolgy when I was studying journalism in the late 1970s. Reid left an enormous imprint on how and what I read, a gift for which I will always be grateful. She also introduced me personally to the closest thing I have to a personal hero, W.O. Mitchell.
I rarely read a book more than once, there being so many new ones I want to get at, but I have read Who Has Seen the Wind a half-dozen times and, when time allows, I will open it again. It is my choice as the Great Canadian Novel, a hands-down winner even when pitted against the works of favourite authors like Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies, Wayne Johnston, Joseph Boyden, Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood (the early works only, please).
Who Has Seen the Wind works on so many levels, taking on the big subjects of life and death, that it easily encourages multiple readings. Most importantly, for me, it offers unmatched insight into how children look at a world that is simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. Brian O’Connal goes about his day-to-day business of being a kid on the prairie with the fascination of a social scientist and the bewilderment of someone who is regular confronted by new and often frightening experiences.
For me, it is hard to overestimate the value of Who Has Seen the Wind, not least because I think it helped me be a better father. My readings inevitably take me back to my own childhood and memories of being baffled and fearful, and of how often the adults around me simply had no idea of how kids think. In his other writings, notably the Jake and the Kid stories, Mitchell demonstrated a keen insight about children, which probably explains the impishness he maintained throughout his life. The best novels entertain and inform, and W.O. Mitchell was a master at both.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.