Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter
Michael Winter is a writer from Newfoundland who divides his time between the Avalon Peninsula and Toronto. His most recent novel, Minister Without Portfolio, is now out in paperback. I knew that this book had content related to a house that Michael Winter owns in Newfoundland – a house I saw across an open field when I visited the house next door belonging to another writer. I’d also read an interview with Michael Winter in which he described an incident that happened when he was renovating this house, one that could have resulted in his death.
Minister Without Portfolio does indeed have a lot to do with a house, but it is also about surviving trauma, finding love and letting it into your heart, and coming to a realization of what really matters in this life.
Henry Hayward is a handy kind of guy, he’s worked with his hands in Newfoundland and Alberta. And, most recently, in Afghanistan where his close friend, Tender Morris, is serving in the military. Henry, Tender and John, all friends from Newfoundland. When Tender Morris is killed in a roadside attack, Henry survives, but believes he is responsible for the death of his friend.
Henry’s return to Newfoundland, the end of his relationship with a long time girlfriend, and the funeral of Tender Morris just about do him in. Minister without portfolio to John means, “you’re so capable you’re to oversee everything”, but to Henry it means, “I have no purpose and no moral compass”. It is his caring friends, John and Silvia, the landscape of the place where they live, and the support of Martha, the woman Tender loved, that eventually help Henry heal.
The house at the centre of the story is an old Newfoundland saltbox, lived in until a few years earlier by an elderly aunt of Tender Morris. Henry determines to save this house and comes to love the place. Although he is not a family member there is something about this house. Henry knows it must be his home, and that he is the one to save it - even if it means that the closest he’ll get to Europe is the café in Goulds with a mural of Venice on the wall.
Henry and Martha have both loved before – they are not about to enter into a relationship that is not honest, open and communicative. And it is the fact that they talk to each other about their loss and their love that leads us to believe they will succeed in putting the past in perspective and be able to face the future together with a strong relationship.
The characters in this book felt like people I know – in fact some are based on people I know – and the way both Michael Winter and Henry Hayward feel about their house is the way I feel about my cottage on Georgian Bay – that I am simply it’s custodian for those who came before me and those who will come after.
Henry, as well as realizing he has only this one life to live, also realizes that his life becomes meaningful in his relationship to others – to his community of 100. The small village he chooses to call home is made up of individuals, people he has some responsibility to accept as they are, and he must take action when he sees a situation that could result in divisiveness among them, though it would be so easy to sit back and say it is not my business.
Minister Without Portfolio is a book that touched me deeply – and one that I believe both men and women will be able to relate to equally – the men in this book are real, though some more self-aware than others.
When Michael Winter appeared at The March Hare in Toronto, early this past spring, he stood at the podium with a copy of Minister Without Portfolio in his hand – and proceeded to tell a story of two brothers – himself and his brother – and their summer job stripping trees for a log cabin – his own infatuation with an older girl – a fire and it’s consequences – exciting, funny and mesmerizing. He never did open the book – leaving the stage with a wave, saying, “It’s all in here”.