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Two Professors and a Storyteller – The Life of W.O. Mitchell, Volume II

Orm and Barb MitchellWhen Orm and Barb Mitchell set out to write a tribute to W.O. Mitchell that straddled the lines between academic biography and personal memoir, critics said they were attempting the impossible. According to the Mitchells, however, the fact that such a biography had never been written was just the challenge they were looking for; and, as accomplished academics as well as the son and daughter-in-law of the great Canadian writer, no one was better suited to take up the task.

In November 2005, Mr. Mitchell, an English Professor at Trent, and his wife, Barb, a former professor of English at the University, released the second part of their two volume biography. Entitled Mitchell: The Life of W.O. Mitchell: The Years of Fame, 1948-1998, this second volume, picks up where the first volume, W.O.: The Life of W.O. Mitchell: Beginnings to Who Has Seen the Wind, 1914-1947, left off and delves into the life of the Canadian writer after the release of his most acclaimed novel.

Throughout the two volumes, the Mitchells weave together three "voices" – the voices of the subjects themselves, including W.O., his wife Merna, and the people they encountered throughout their lives, as well as the voice of the academic, more objective, biographer, and the personal voice of the authors, gleaned from a lifetime of memories.

"We tried to combine all sorts of biographical elements into the same work," explained Professor Barb Mitchell during a recent interview at their home just outside of Peterborough. "We used our academic training and approached the biography on that level but we also wanted the personal voices to come through."

With over 14 years of taped interviews and approximately 80 hours with W.O. himself, it was the personal voices that were hard to ignore. In fact, the broad range of stories, facts, and anecdotes was the reason why the biography had to be split into two volumes – a decision that was made only after eight chapters of the first volume were written.

"We were collecting such raw material that no one else had access to," Professor Barb Mitchell recalled, pointing out that this is the first biography to be written on W.O. Mitchell. "We wanted to put it all out there for other researchers."

Professor Orm Mitchell quickly interjected: "And we also wanted to tell an interesting story…W.O.'s work is much loved by a wide audience – from the guy on the street to the academic. We wanted our biography to do the same thing…He didn't write for just one audience, so neither did we."

In addition to writing for a wide audience, the Mitchells' attempt to capture so many different elements of W.O.'s life is also a means of showing the reader the "whole story" – the goal of any good biography. And, in spite of the authors' close relationship to their subject, or perhaps because of it, they don't hold back any punches; from discussing W.O.'s fight with depression during the 1960s to exploring Merna's dependence on alcohol, the Mitchells felt it was important to highlight it all.

"We wanted to put the reader inside as much as possible," Professor Orm Mitchell said. "W.O. was full of high-octane energy and it sometimes took a toll on him and her (Merna) and the other people around."

Professors Orm and Barb Mitchell were also granted the inside look into the life of W.O. Mitchell through their research for this biography – some stories were already known but others provided interesting revelations for the family members as well. Professor Barb Mitchell, for example, remembers discovering that there were in fact two editions of Who Has Seen the Wind – the Canadian version and a little known American version in which 7,000 words were cut. Even W.O. Mitchell himself had forgotten about this edition, only remembering later his fights with an American editor to keep certain elements of the book intact – including many of the metaphorical references to the wind.

Overall, the goal of the complete biography is to commemorate the life of W.O. Mitchell, who died in 1998. In addition to commemorating a life, however, Professors Orm and Barb Mitchell are also successful in piecing together a work that combines many different styles and voices in such a way that it ultimately tells a story – a goal W.O. Mitchell himself would appreciate, especially since, according to Professor Orm Mitchell, "W.O. was a storyteller; he loved turning things in his own life into stories."

Posted April 18, 2006





























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