W.O. Mitchell (1914 – 1998) was a remarkable Canadian novelist and playwright. His novel, Who Has Seen the Wind? is a true classic and his Jake and the Kid stories, broadcast on CBC radio, formed part of the childhood of a generation of Canadians. I was one of them. I reviewed a couple of his books over the years, and The Black Bonspiel would be considered a minor piece. But I liked this review because it ends by noting how the time Mitchell was describing was passing away, but itself includes references to a contemporary world that was as rapidly vanishing. Imagine…there are now some really quite decent Canadian wines.
The Black Bonspiel of Willie MacCrimmon, McClelland & Stewart, 144 pages, $18.95
A few years ago, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Canadian cultural attaché decided to throw a big patty in honour of the usual contingent of Canadian agents and publishers. As it happened, a novel of mine was the “big book” at the fair that year and so I was expected to go. And I did go, but there were complications, and I arrived late, Indeed so late that the people meeting me had given up and gone on ahead.
I was embarrassed, and in something of a quandary. The hotel was enormous, there was no directory to its numerous public rooms, and as the minutes passed I grew increasingly desperate..but then, in the distance, I heard a sound that was as distinctively Canadian as a Hudson locomotive whistling through the Prairie night, or the thump of a puck into the boards, a sound that could only mark the spot of Canadian art festivities, the sound of…
But I’m going to make you guess what that sound was. And if you don’t get it right, you should start taking ginkgo bilboa for your brain cells.
Think. We’re talking Canada here. We’re talking evening festivities, free booze and eats. And culture – speeches. And of course we’re talking about the peculiar quality of the External Affairs mind. So what was the sound I heard? Yes, of course, it was the skirl of bagpipes and all I had to do was dash from elevator to stairwell to corridor, until I reached a great, gloomy room just as the kilted piper made one last circuit, blowing and squeezing on his instrument, while several hundred literati from Spain, Italy, Norway, Brazil, Japan – the whole vast world——looked on in complete, total and utter disbelief. Later, of course, they would sample–for the first time in their lives—-Canadian “wine.”
This memory, surreal and humiliating at the same time, frequently came back to me as I read W.O. Mitchell’s charming novella, The Black Bonspiel of Willie MacCrimmon, for the wail of the pipes leads the reader– like a loyal clansman or a head-table guest—-through the book.
Based on a play, the story is an old one, indeed about as old as you can get.
Willie MacCrimmon makes a pact with the Devil. But Willie isn’t Faust——he doesn’t sell his soul for knowledge or power. He doesn’t even want a night of love with Seka, or all of Mortie Shulman’s gold. No, Willie is a Canadian, of Scottish descent. He lives in Shelby, Alta. Most important of all, he is a continuing Presbyterian. If you don’t know what that is, Mr. Mitchell explains; or you can ask your aunt. So, naturally, he can conceive of only one prize that is worth his soul–to win the Canadian Bonspiel, to be the curling champion of all the world. And so, cunning Scot that he is, Willie makes a counter proposition to Old Cloutie and curls the game of his life.
Really, there’s not a great deal to say about all this, except that it’s handled with W.O. Mitchell’s usual skill. The satire, as you’d expect, is firm but gentle, with Old Nick being neatly turned into a sort of provincial premier while the politically correct—- to use the quintessential term–is represented by a moral lady who fears pleasure in all its forms, from curling on Sunday to Chaucer in the schools. And the whole story works because of an understated irony. Willie (and W. 0. Mitchell) are on the side of life and can therefore enjoy a Devil whose reality is denied to more narrow-minded rationalists.
As a story, The Black Bonspiel belongs to an old tradition——my favorite, think is still Max Beerbohm’s Enoch Soames——and one with an especially important Scottish branch, the “bogie tale.” This is a fine example but course is entirely Canadian. That’s part of its charm–to see the Devil at work in Shelby, Alta., ultimately foxed by a silver tack in his boot.
But this Canada is fast disappearing. W.O. Mitchell will be 80 next year, and whether he likes it or not he’s a grand old man, part of tradition, and other people’s childhoods. And that’s the Canada this book is about..a time when you could still take the CPR along the North Shore to Montreal, when football teams had flying wings, and taverns a “Ladies and Escorts” entrance. It was the Canada of the Family Herald and Weekly Star, of the Happy Gang and O1′ Rawhide on the. CBC —-and, most definitely Jake and the Kid. More importantly, it was a time when principles were still in touch with humanity and tolerance could still do down fanaticism. That’s almost gone now. But you can catch its echo in the sound of the pipes, and we have, in W. O. Mitchell’s charming tale, a grand souvenir.
(Originally appeared in The Ottawa Citizen, October 30, 1993.)