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The Big Why by Michael Winter

“Did you get to be who you are?”

Late last fall we spent some time in Newfoundland, our first visit there in over 10 years, and we fell in love – again. With the place and the people, the music and the literature. Newfoundland like Georgian Bay is all about the water, and the long view. As much as we loved the rich cultural life of St. John’s, it was only once we got well outside of the sprawling suburbs – out into the barrens, and along the coast, that we found ourselves in landscape that made us feel right at home.

Heading north on the Avalon Peninsula out of St. John’s, with a friend, we went for a walk in the village of Brigus. This is where the American artist Rockwell Kent found a house “not lived in for a generation but built for grandchildren” overlooking the harbour. He lived there for a year and a half in 1914 and 1915. The house sits high above the water, a typical wooden structure of its time. As we drove around the Peninsula looking at houses one of the things that struck us was the small windows – it was not until I read The Big Why that I found the answer to my puzzlement as Kent does when told, “ why would we want to look at the salt water? When we’re out on it all day long ..”. I’ve since read this response in a number of memoirs from the outports.

Kent considered himself a member of the “ashcan” movement; artists who wanted their art to reflect reality at a time when others were moving to a more impressionistic style. For Kent reality is his religion, “I believe in the shape a boat cuts through the ice”. You may know Kent’s paintings, but he is most well known for his wood engravings, many used as illustrations for books, Moby Dick the most available.

Newfoundland was a more remote place in the early 1900s than it is now, and Kent discovered a world far different from his home in New York City. There was travel by train or boat between the communities along the coast – but few roads or motorcars. Nor was life easy in the outports, there was the very real risk of starvation for many. Kent came to Brigus first without his wife and children, he met Bob Bartlett, already known as an explorer, who became a friend.

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Kent came into the community, bringing with him his confidence and his, relative, affluence. He provided some employment as he worked on his house, purchasing goods and services, and he appeared to have found a place where he planned to stay for the rest of his life. The summer weather brings with it the arrival of Kent’s wife, Kathleen, and their three children. We learn that Kent is a man who considers his sexual urges more important than fidelity – I found myself beginning to dislike this arrogant man. I will also say that I am not a fan of explicit sex in fiction, and there were a few times when I found the sex scenes more distasteful than erotic – and would like to have taken a black marker to be rid of them. That being said it was not enough to spoil the whole package.

Some of the things I learned, and loved about reading The Big Why by Michael Winter are – that that tea without milk is called “stark naked”. A brick standing on end in a brick fireplace is called a soldier brick. “Coal gets into everything like a woman in love”. That the mitts we bought years ago in Newfoundland that work so well for my husband when sketching in the cold, mitts with a thumb and index finger knitted in, are called “trigger mitts” for a reason that is obvious. And I learned about building a wooden fence – and the choice of putting the horizontal rails on the inside or the outside – on the inside if you want to prevent someone from easily climbing over it from the outside. A quintal is 114 pounds. That Rockwell Kent was only 33 years old when this story takes place.

And at the end it is Bob Bartlett who says to Kent, “The question is not, were you loved…but … did you get to be who you are? And if not, then why. That my friend is the big why”.

It would be interesting to know what Rockwell Kent would make of The Big Why. Toward the end of the novel Michael Winter quotes Kierkegaard: “It is in your power to review your life, to look at things you saw before, from another point of view”. Of course it helps if you live a long life, as Rockwell Kent did. He had a succession of wives, and produced several children. Michael Winter has a friend of Kent’s suggesting that it is his life, not his art that will last. Kent’s life, as told by Michael Winter, is a fascinating story but I believe it is the art that has lasted, leading us to a desire to know about the man who made it. Michael Winter does an admirable job of making the story of a man I found rather unlikeable into a very good novel.

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