THE BIG WHY by Michael Winter (House of Anansi), 384 pages, $36 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
They say to write from your own experience, not about it. Don't describe what you've seen; draw the reader through it. But how do you do that with a historical novel?
Toronto writer and Newfoundland native Michael Winter has done this brilliantly.
The Big Why's protagonist is real-life American illustrator and painter Rockwell Kent. Written as a memoir of Kent's brief sojourn in the Newfoundland fishing town of Brigus just before the start of the first world war, the book captures a unique moment both in the artist's life and in the history of the island before it joined Confederation. The reflections on how to live and love express the wisdom of a man who has failed at both and yet thrived.
But here's the key. A typical historical novelist strives to imagine the unknowable subjective experience of the central character. Winter's genius leads him in the opposite direction. He adopts a real historical character as an opportunity to explore his own capacity to live and love. Kent comes alive as someone Winter might have been. They coalesce like a pair of ice pans floating down Conception Bay.
Superb dialogue and narrative tell the story in a series of insightful vignettes.
Winter may not have created the first faux-memoir-as-fictionalised-real-memoir, but it is unlikely that it has ever been executed this well. Check out Winter's previous book, This All Happened, about a fictitious writer who wants to write a historical novel about Rockwell Kent.
He's bucky, this one - see what I mean, boy?