Focusing on the year Rockwell Kent (the illustrator of Moby Dick) and his family spent in Brigus, Newfoundland on the eve of the First World War, Winter offers up the private emotions of a man whose outer ambitions betray his inner feelings. Kent vows to be faithful to his wife, to live close to the sea, and document, through paintings and woodcuts, a picturesque land and society. But he also desires everything, including the young woman who cares for their children. His friend, the explorer Bob Bartlett, explains how the artist's beliefs and way of life run drastically against those of this small seafaring community.
Funny, surprising, and thoroughly honest about our desires and contradictions, The Big Why bares all: it is about a man who was not fully understood or accepted in the time and place in which he lived. And it is about how we all try to find our place in the world, to gain wisdom, but in the end must humbly accept the transcendent fallout of our actions.
This odd bird of a lucidly written biographical novel about 20th-century American painter Rockwell Kent is not about art. Other than the titles of a few paintings, and the studio where he retreats to escape his family and the world, there is little discussion of Kent's work. Instead, this is the story of Kent and his family's sojourn in Brigus, Newfoundland, where they flee the inquiring eyes of New York for some rural peace. But rather than affording privacy, the small town greets him first with fascination, then scorn, and then, with the arrival of WWI and the socialist painter's lack of patriotic zeal unfounded fear. Winter expertly outlines his protagonist's psychological nuances, but offers minimal indication of what Kent's art means to him or the role it plays in his life. The author (Creaking in Their Skins) is on steadier ground with dialogue, which is uniformly trenchant and humorous. Kent's discussions with his friend and mentor, Gerald, take on the glow of a modern Socratic dialogue or an intellectual improv routine, and Kent's wife, Kathleen, comes vividly to life. Winter gives us a flesh-and-blood Rockwell Kent the man, but does not do the same for Kent the artist.