Howard Norman mixes nostalgia (without sentimentality), environmentalism (specifically ornithology), folktales (Native American and Inuit), personal essay (and personal tragedy), and a healthy dose of quirkiness native to the far north of North America. The result is I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place: A Memoir (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).
Norman is a mainly a novelist, but he has also translated a number of Inuit and Native American folktales. It is from one of these tales that he gets the title of the book. His path to a life of letters is an unusual journey: high school dropout; various odd jobs; college to get double degrees in English and zoology; and completion of a graduate program in linguistics and folklore. This book consists of five expansive personal essays. He ties his work together using a quote from Saigyo, a poet-monk of 12th century Japan: “A soul that is not confused is not a soul.” It is his motivation to discover life, to plumb its mystery.
On this essayistic journey, Norman does an excellent job of showing us what it means to be alive. He revels in the strange sexual tension between him and his older brother’s girlfriend, culminating in an interesting moment with her in a movie theater. This also serves to introduce his troubled brother, a character who reappears later in the book. In these early years, Norman is already a writer. He taps out conversations on his manual Olivetti typewriter. He writes long letters to other boys’ fathers as if they were his own, a man who has abandoned his family. He never sends these letters, but Paris, his brother’s girlfriend, intercedes and changes that.
He is also a reader. His first job is helping out in the library bookmobile. There he discovers a book on the Artic which sets him on his life’s course. It is a classic small town boyhood complete with Nehi orange pop and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. What is unusual is the fact that he sees his estranged father every day from a distance, hanging out at the corner drugstore as the son passes in his bookmobile. His mother told him his father lived in California, and until she died in 2009, he never asked her if she knew he was still in town. “I didn’t ask her a lot of things I should have,” he writes.
In these early chapters, Norman introduces his love of birds, and they become a recurring motif throughout the narrative. The catalyst for this love seems to be an occasion where he inadvertently causes the death of a swan. He is conflicted by his murder, and the event changes him. Tragedy and beauty are often companions in Norman’s writing, and he walks a high wire balancing act between them so that scenes are often tragic, comic and beautiful all at the same time. His writing is never overtly emotional or maudlin, although there is ample opportunity for both. He dabbles in music journalism, blows a chance at marriage, loses his girlfriend in a plane crash, and later realizes he lost her well before the plane hit the frozen earth in the dead of winter.
The people he meets in his life furnish his writing with quirky characters. He never glamorizes his own hapless blunders. He describes his aimlessness, his awkward missteps, his calamities. As he searches for secure footing, we see him start to right the ship of his life. He comes to understand that the world is worthy of examination and of careful study, and he takes heed of “the assertion set forth in a poem by Paul Eluard: ‘There is another world but it is in this one.’” This makes him focus on the smaller moments in life that often yield powerful epiphanies. Of particular note is his learning of the murder of John Lennon and his description of the Vermont farmhouse where he writes. Of the latter, he says it is a place where “Everything I love most happened most every day.”
The book occasionally drags a bit, meandering in a way that parallels life, specifically, Norman’s, but the last essay is a doozy. In the events Norman describes we see an obscene tragedy, the most powerful and dramatic yet in the narrative. However, there is a return from the edge, a redemption that is key to recovery. The writer again must find a way to right the ship of his life and continue the journey, even while others choose to abort their lives early, mired in despair. As I read, I did not think I would have had the courage Norman displays, but possibly this goes to the art of a folktale, which often uses myth to reach an understanding of sorrow and tragedy. After a life immersed in these stories, Norman obviously has taken the lessons of the Inuit and Native Americans to heart.
Howard Norman’s writing here is beautiful and heartbreaking. It is well worth the reading. His prose is like the melody of a story around a fire on a winter’s night, the voice of a storyteller who draws in the reader with warmth and a well-told tale. In the end, I hated to leave that voice behind because it was so sad, so beautiful, so compelling.