‘Into the Blizzard: Walking The Fields of the Newfoundland Dead’ by Michael Winter

Into the Blizzard coverReviewed by Shane Neilson

Michael Winter is the author of seven previous books that, to greater or lesser degrees, focus on his spiritual home of Newfoundland. I’ve been reading Michael since his first book of stories came out twenty years ago. I’ve watched how his talent has developed, how he has refined his technique of unpunctuated dialogue enmeshed in a narrative that unfolds according to his seamless rules. Winter’s dialogue approaches Canadian critic John Metcalf’s long-preached pinnacle of aptness: Winterian conversations are energetic cacophonies of characterization. Russell Smith and I once discussed Winter, and Smith described his dialogue as “virtuoso.” I immediately agreed, and added how special it was that a concise sentence writer could display such beautiful variation.

I admire Winter’s snapshot-like novel debut, This All Happened (2000). This text of brief bits presents the life of a man uncannily like its author, a man obsessed with images and binoculars. (This All Happened anticipates Winter’s  current social media practice on Twitter where he uploads incredible photos of his perambulations with pointed and humourous text as accompaniment.) I also enjoyed The Big Why (2004), Winter’s CanLit Money Shot (aka the historical novel) and I think I shall never forget the cold and hunger suffered by Rockwell Kent during a difficult winter. The Architects Are Here (2007) demonstrated a maturing writer’s accumulation of additional tools—Winter could now write his simple poetic sentences and yet render action strange to the reader (a billboard falls on the protagonist and the description reads like a poem until one realizes that Winter has developed a method of presenting narrative action that embodies that action.)

The Death of Donna Whalen (2010) was thrilling in its transgression, an aspect of the novel that I feel didn’t get enough attention. Questions of genre dominated that book (was it fiction, was it non-fiction, what was it?) but it took guts to lift from court records a notorious and contemporary case from one’s famously small-world hometown. That transgression gave Donna Whalen tremendous energy and marks the point at which Winter became restless as a writer, tired of old forms and perfection within those forms. Donna Whalen shows that Winter became interested in creating hybrid forms that retain his trademark concise beauty and brilliant talk. His subsequent novel, Minister Without Portfolio (2013) is among the very few Canadian novels that engage with contemporary wars and would be fascinating to contrast that text with the current volume under review. Perhaps a time will come when I’m able to think about these two books together.

But for now, considering Into the Blizzard in isolation, I believe that Winter has offered the world a piece of his heart. Blizzard is a narrative about Newfoundland, his place in it, his home’s place in the wider world, and Winter’s own place in the wider world as it relates to his home’s journeys in the world. Though the sense of the previous sentence is much like a tangled net off the Grand Banks, it describes Winter’s technique in Into the Blizzard with a The-Architects-Are- Here-like method. It is also a clue as to my rationale behind the self-ish style of this review’s two previous paragraphs: the book is heavily dependent upon an “I” who is identified as the author, Michael Winter, a middle-aged man travelling through Europe in spiritual solidarity with the Newfoundland Regiment that disembarked to fight in the First World War 100 years before.

Winter weaves a web of self-referential connection, tying his own specific location at any one point in the narrative to that of battle records pertaining to the same area, historical documents relating to notable soldiers, Newfoundland political history, Canadian political history, English command of the war and, especially, his own autobiography concerning the province of Newfoundland. I therefore thought it permissible to write at length about my own experience of Michael Winter at this review’s outset. But the pitfalls of the practice are inherent in my own pile up of personal pronouns. One asks: isn’t this review about Michael Winter?

Yes. It is! It will be. And it is already. . .

Winter inventively ties his disparate bits of data together. He collects fragments of history that struck him, especially letters from or to soldiers. Winter draws these details into his personal experience as an inhabitant of the province of Newfoundland. This creates a conversation like that which occurs between people of any small place: “Now, do you know the store by the hill?” And the other man says, “Well, I do know that store, and the man that used to run it. His son runs it now.”  ”Oh, really? I remember when it used to be blue . . .” Only in this case the conversation occurs in time between dead men and Winter. The stylistic variety Winter habitually employs keeps the bolts from coming undone. For example, on page 133 Winter reflects upon a cemetery in Beaumont-Hamel. He considers the dead men and the war’s constant destruction of grave markers which obscured their final resting place. The next paragraph is,

When my wife and I bought our house in Newfoundland, a clever man told us that if we wanted an accurate survey, to measure the land in relation to the cemetery nearby. Cemeteries don’t move, he said to us. Well now I’ve found a pile of cemeteries that do move.

Winter connects conversational detail to that of his war memorialisation travels, and the effect is that, as he draws himself into the Newfoundland experience during the war, he draws the reader in as well. Into the Blizzard is unique as a non-fiction book written by a major Canadian novelist meant to posit no original argument other than the waste of war and the simple gratitude of a single survivor as he tries to comprehend the details of the lives of dead men. The writing far surpasses that of the standard CanLit non-fiction fare, even that which lands on the RBC Taylor Prize and that ghastly-named BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. Winter cares about every sentence as a matter of pride and he cares too about how they fit together. He puts primary sources through his superb prose style and novelist’s imagination to create an idiosyncratic story. It is powerful, beautiful writing.

But the problem a book like this can’t avoid is the problem inherent to the concept. That “I” I mentioned, aye— the “I” Winter persona is everywhere to be found, both as actor and as interpreter. In the context of the disaster of the First World War, and the tragedy of the misuse of Newfoundland’s young men, the problem Winter faces is the inclusion of relatively unimportant personal detail in the same breath as someone who died or suffered greatly. The bridges Winter makes between himself and the Newfoundland dead can render the departure point — Winter himself — the thing the reader wants to leave. Winter is too much in the book and he is often the bearer of bathos, the one who memorializes great sacrifice in the context of his small but honourable freedom in the present. Dead men overwhelm the teller of this tale, but the frequency of this problem suggests to me that it is intentional. One of Winter’s points is bafflement and incomprehension in the face of war. And why can’t he repetitively insist that he is small and it is big? Man keeps waging war . . .

Near the mid-point of the text, we walk with Winter in Beaumont-Hamel. In this locale, Winter’s bathos paradoxically creates power. Winter is never boring at the level of the sentence and, when narrating his connection to the men who died, he follows his own bridge to the men who died. This makes for real communion in his prose, a baffled but poignant staying-with in which Winter describes the Newfoundland Regiment’s mean hardship and deprivation, the men’s individual and collective yearning for home as he contemplates his own relative inconsequence. His brief sketch of the execution of deserter John Roberts is particularly poignant.

Into the Blizzard is a love letter to a province’s sacrifice by a great Canadian writer. Winter is honest from the outset about how his non-fiction book was commissioned but his trademark prose survived the hire nevertheless. This text will be a key for future readers and scholars interested in understanding Winter’s precise novels, because its verifiable detail demonstrates how his passion, wonder, and bafflement inform that detail.

Doubleday Canada | 352 pages | $32.95 | cloth | ISBN # 978-0385677851

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