The shiny shoes, pressed pants, and neat barn on the cover of my copy of W.O. Mitchell’s[i] Jake and the Kid will strike anyone who has lived on a farm as a little too tidy.
The Norman Rockwell-style artwork features a barn interior around an open door that looks out into bright daylight where a young boy is sitting on a horse. An older man in the clean shoes and straight coveralls holds a strap coming from the bridle.
At times, reading Jake and the Kid feels like a stroll through a Rockwell painting. It’s a saving-kittens-at-Christmas version of the Canadian prairies that makes you nod and smile. This is not a bad experience, but it works best as literature if it also supports you in the messier real world where you have to watch your step and what you step into.
The book, which won the Leacock Medal in 1962,[ii] celebrates the relationship between Jake, the hired hand, and “The Kid,” an unnamed boy who tells the story and who helps his mother farm while his father is overseas in World War II. The Kid’s world is the farm, school, and the mythical town of Crocus, Saskatchewan.[iii]
The Kid, starving to make sense of the world, eats up Jake’s every word with wide-eyes and the certainty that his hero “always knows what he is talking about.”
Jake’s too old for WWII, but misses few opportunities to summon his Vimy Ridge role in the Great War and his battles with Boers before it. In fact, the farm hand never passes over a chance to reference anything he can relate to the Kid’s problems. Jake’s recollections of “Looie” Riel and “Wilf” Laurier seem dubious and conflict with historical facts. But the older man believes his own stories and always has a point beyond self-aggrandizement. In everything, he is trying to assure the Kid and make life a little easier.
Jake explains that the key distinction between women and other humans is their preoccupation with having things “just so,” and it rings true. Miss Henchbaw, the teacher, is always insisting on decimal points being in just the right place, and the Kid’s Ma takes great care every Sunday to saliva down each and every hair on her son’s head before church.
The stories are comforting and easy to follow, absorb, and enjoy.[iv] We laugh because Jake’s explanations are simultaneously innocent and shrewd, nonsensical and common sense, and we smile because it all has an undertone of caring and trying to lessen the hardship. Jake is not alone. Crocus has other yarn spinners who have all seen “the deepest snow, the worst dust storms, the biggest hailstones ...Rust and dust and hail and sawfly and cutworm and drought.” “Terrible things,” but Jake and his cohorts can make them less frightening if they are made ridiculous through tall tales.
Half way through the book in “The Liar Hunter” episode, one character explains “These men lie about the things that hurt them most ... If a man can laugh at them he’s won half the baffle ... When he exaggerates things he isn’t lying really; it’s a defense, ... He can either do that or squeal.”
In the same way, it doesn’t matter much that W.O. Mitchell’s paradise in the prairie never existed. Like the Rockwell-ish painting on my book, the image makes for a good mental reference when wrestling with reality in any era.
The popularity of Jake and the Kid in books, radio, and TV over many decades suggests Canadians are particularly inclined to the image of a regular guy trying make the world a little softer with his stories.[v]Parliament Pete and the Kid - Parody
[i] W.O. Mitchell influenced a generation of authors as a teacher: a Writer in Residence at Trent University, the University of Calgary, the University of Alberta, the University of Toronto’s Massey College, the University of Windsor, and the Banff Centre. He also studied at the UofA and the University of Manitoba and mentored others outside of formal settings, encouraging many from his time as Literary Editor for MacLean’s magazine. Mitchell has been credited with “discovering” writers like Ray Bradbury and fellow Leacock Medal winners Farley Mowat and Ernest Buckler. (see David O’Rourke for Essays on Canadian Writing. 20 (Winter 1980): p149-59.)
[ii] William Ormond - W.O. - Mitchell (1914 to 1998) was not an unqualified admirer of Stephen Leacock, once calling him “a little slapstick.” Mitchell said the writer who had the greatest influence on him and his writing was Virginia Woolf.
[iii] Mitchell started writing Jake stories in the early 1940s and then polished them into a popular CBC radio series in the 1950s.
[iv] Mitchell was the author of the bestselling book in Canada, Who has seen the Wind. Its sales were approaching the million mark before his passing. It had displaced Maria Chapdelaine, a novel set in French Canada around Mitchell’s birth.
[v] Mitchell’s son Ormond and Ormond’s wife Barbara were both literary scholars who produced a well reviewed and uniquely intimate biography of W.O. in two volumes: The Life of W.O. Mitchell, Beginnings to Who has seen the Wind, 1914 to 1947, and The of W.O. Mitchell, The years of Fame, 1948-1998.