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The Canadian Mark Twain

Some of the things I appreciate most in life can be attributed largely to the influence of my Gido. I hold him solely responsible for my love of Oh Henry! chocolate bars. One summer when I was a child, I went on a road trip with my Baba and Gido in their motorhome. I remember stopping on a dusty Saskatchewan road, in a dusty little town while my grandparents visited some old friends. I was asked briskly if “I’d ever had one of these” and was unceremoniously tossed what felt like the biggest candy bar of my young life. My memory is of heat melted chocolate, waiting for my grandparents to come back (They maybe left me in the motorhome? This part is hazy. I probably wanted a nap.) and deeply enjoying my first Oh Henry! bar. It was most likely the first full sized chocolate bar I had all to myself.

Though there were many other things our grandparents influenced us in, another specific memory is them catering to my love of books. It was open season on their bookshelf when we came to visit. Many birthday gifts from family members consisted of books– from The Secret Garden to Gully Farm. To be honest, I’m not sure how I came to receive this specific book, the one that this whole story starts with. It’s a very unassuming book with its tattered book jacket, and though I don’t know how it got onto my bookshelf, I know it’s impact on me. The author took the title of the book from a poem by a 19th century English poet “Who Has Seen the Wind?” (something about poems that personify nature just get me). The book itself was written by W.O. Mitchell– the Canadian Mark Twain– and has sold over a million copies since it was published in 1947.

The feelings W.O Mitchell evokes in Who Has Seen the Wind is right up there with To Kill a Mockingbird. Dare I even say that he is on the same level as L.M Montgomery, but like a windier version with a deeper writing voice. Except there’s not really a plot and each chapter can almost be read independently. It’s told from a little boy’s point of view and the reader journeys with him as he shares his view on the neighbourhood, death, God and the world (as much as he can see of the world anyway). What you get to experience through this narrative is some beautiful prose about the Saskatchewan scenery. Maybe things that you yourself may have felt or thought but could never put into words. W.O. Mitchell is a genius in the way he paints his characters and depicts the natural world.

The Original Coffee Table Book

Now that you’re craving a chocolate bar and understand my deep love for W.O. Mitchell, let’s dig into the next story. My bookshelf holds a beautiful, hardcover book full of the writings of W.O. Mitchell’s paired with Courtney Milne’s photography of the prairies. How this book came to be on our bookshelf is a story all on it’s own.

Saskatoon used to be home to the Mendel Art Gallery (what has since become the Saskatoon Children’s Museum). I’m making it sound like I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. I rarely spent time with them without the rest of my family, but the times I did are etched in my memories. My parents would drop me off for a week and I would split my time between my Baba and Gido and my Grandma. (As a side note, Grandma gave us a book called ‘Mrs. Mike’ that influenced us deeply, but that’s a whole other story).

During one of my summer Saskatoon trips, I visited the Mendel Art Gallery with Gido. We perused the gift shop and that’s when I saw it. The most beautiful, blue, hardcover, stunning book I had ever seen. I remained calm while I did the classic “flip through”, read some of W.O. Mitchell’s words and, in that moment, fell in love all over again. What you also must understand about Courtney Milne is that he used photography to carefully study wild flora, fauna and landscape formations. His photography is whimsical, and you can feel the genuine respect he carried for nature. The pairing of these two is genius. This book was a glorious creation.

I turned it over to look at the price tag and immediately knew we would not be together. Growing up, my family was very frugal, and I didn’t know how to justify spending $65 on a book, no matter how beautiful it was. (I must have been young still. Back in the day when $65 was my entire savings.)

The lady in the gift shop informed us that it was no longer in print and this was the last copy of this book, dug out from a box of books that Courtney Milne’s wife found in the basement. Did I mention it was signed? A one of a kind, unique, signed book.

We left. And that was the end of the story.

Just kidding. We left the Mendel Art Gallery Gift shop and I continued with my Saskatoon visit by heading off to my Grandma’s. I told her about my time in Saskatoon so far and ranted about this beautiful book with such passion that she suggested we pool our money together– she would give me my birthday money early and I would scrounge together the rest. How could one say no to a signed copy of a no-longer-in-print book? This was a once in a lifetime chance!

We barely made it to the Mendel Art Gallery before closing time. It was a race against time, travelling down the winding road called ‘Spadina’ in my Grandma’s little beige sports car. She waited in the car while I ran in to purchase my early birthday gift. Grandma and I laughed in glee as I came back to the car and flipped through my new book with her. What a treasure!

The photographer, Courtney Milne passed away a couple of years later and I received a newspaper clipping from Baba and Gido in the mail. It was an article about Courtney Milne’s life and his influence in the Saskatoon art community. I am not sure where this started, but it is very common to find books on my family’s bookshelf with relevant articles tucked/taped inside the front cover (Does anybody else do that?). If you were to pick up this book today, the clipped article is still in there. Yellowed and faded, but it’s there.

These are memories that I hold closely to me. Sometimes, when I am feeling very sad, I eat an Oh Henry! and celebrate the memories of people I love and have lost. I hope that sharing these memories, in some small way, spark a memory within you or return feelings long forgotten. Remember that we are surrounded by beauty. We don’t have to have a deep love of nature, or the outdoors, in order to simply appreciate it.

 

(Grandma, if you’re reading this, I hope I remembered it all correctly.)

 

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.
      –
“Who Has Seen the Wind”
Christina Georgina Rossetti
Prairie Sisters

Author Prairie Sisters

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