Thursday, March 24, 2011

THE BIG WHY by Michael Winter (2004) House of Anansi Press, 374 pages

Abandon any preconceived notions you have about historical fiction and leap headlong onto the ride that Michael Winter provides in this richly realized imaginative portrait of American painter/engraver Rockwell Kent. (He provided the illustrations for Moby Dick) Although the father to young children and husband to the lovely Kathleen Whiting, Kent is totally feckless. He leaves his family in New York City because he has tired of the superficial art world that has become his bread and butter and travels to Brigus, Newfoundland just before World War One where he dreams of establishing an artists' colony. There he plans to get a house in order and to bring his wife and children from New York once the weather improves in this tiny coastal community.

Winter has breathed real life into Kent and all of his supporting characters, characters from an intimate community where everyone is sure to know each others' business and heartache as predictable as the tide that thrashes against the shore. Always suspicious of any outsider, especially one who dines out on a story of being invited by the Prime Minister, the locals keep a watchful eye on this suspect vegetarian womanizer even as his family settles in for a time.

Kent is surely his own worst enemy, something that he comes to realize after he has hurt those he has loved the most. It is Kent's friendship with Newfoundland's fabled explorer Bob Bartlett, however, that leads him to his existential heart when after disclosing a long-kept secret Bartlett insists, "the question is not were you loved. Or did you love. Or did you love yourself. Or did you allow love to move you, though that's a big one. Move you. The question, Rockwell, is did you get to be who you are. And if not, then why. That, my friend, is the big why."

Did you get to be who you are? It's a profound question. You might begin to form the answer to it by looking in the mirror with Rockwell Kent in Michael Winter's extraordinary novel THE BIG WHY.

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