'What Is Left The Daughter' A Work Of Endurance

Cover: What Is Left The Daughter

Howard Norman's new novel, What Is Left The Daughter, opens with the kind of tragedy that reminds you that there is really no such thing as a small town.

Wyatt Hillyer is a teenage boy in Nova Scotia whose mother and father throw themselves off of different bridges because they've each fallen in love with the same woman.

But that's just where the novel begins. By the time it ends, a cast of characters will be caught up in Shakespearean range of war, love, an ineradicable moment of hate and loss, and lives that endure.

Host Scott Simon talks with Norman about his most recent novel. Norman is a National Book Award nominee for his novels The Northern Lights and The Bird Artist.

Excerpt: What Is Left the Daughter

Cover: What Is Left The Daughter
What Is Left The Daughter
By Howard Norman
Hardcover, 256 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List price: $25

How Your Father Became an Apprentice in Sleds and Toboggans in the Village of Middle Economy, Nova Scotia

In The Highland Book of Platitudes, Marlais, there’s an entry that reads, “Not all ghosts earn our memory in equal measure.” I think about this sometimes. I think especially about the word “earn,” because it implies an ongoing willful effort on the part of the dead, so that if you believe the platitude, you have to believe in the afterlife, don’t you? Following that line of thought, there seem to be certain people—call them ghosts—with the ability to insinuate themselves into your life with more belligerence and exactitude than others—it’s their employment and expertise.

My parents are such people. How else to describe it? Let me try. Last evening, for instance, I sat at the table. It was lightly raining. I was having a cup of tea, listening to a Beethoven quartet (Quartet No. 9 in C Major, my favorite) on the nightly classical radio program, when suddenly the broadcast was interrupted by static. Maybe I take things with the radio too personally, but I got the uneasy feeling—I’ve felt this many times—the static was really my mother’s and father’s indecipherable tidings from the afterlife. Were they trying to tell me something? What was the message?

I imagine that your mother informed you of this—maybe she didn’t—but let me say it directly. My own mother, Katherine, and my father, Joseph, leapt from separate bridges in Halifax on the same evening. I was seventeen. Oh, it was quite the scandal. It made for bold headlines in the Halifax Mail (page two the day after it happened, page four the following day; the war was on, so most of the front page was reserved for Allied victories and setbacks, and Axis atrocities). So there I was, a spectacle for every Haligonian to pity, victim of a sordid love triangle, orphaned all of a single hour, on August 27, 1941, between six and seven o’clock, not quite dusk at that time of year, but almost. Odd as it might sound, the fi rst thing I experienced, past the initial shock, was embarrassment. And when I returned to school the day after the funerals, I could hardly breathe for the shame and embarrassment of it all. That may not refl ect well on me, but it’s the truth. Of course, at night the weird sadness found me, and everything familiar to my life, absolutely everything, had suddenly become unfamiliar.

It’s been twenty-six years, then, since my father leapt from the Halifax-Dartmouth Toll Bridge, connecting Highway 111 to the Bedford Highway, my mother from the toll bridge connecting North Street to Windmill Road. Rough waters that day under all bridges, Bedford Basin to Halifax Harbor, wild dark skies and gulls more catapulted and buffeted than flying here to there, all of which I could see from my high school on Barrington Street. Anyway, I keep the clippings in a mintwood box. Among their headlines are unusual love nest results in twin suicides and mystery woman causes family tragedy.

Have you ever read the poet Emily Dickinson? She says that to travel all you need to do is close your eyes. Here at 58 Robie some nights, I close my eyes and I’m back on August 27, 1941, sitting on the porch when the fi rst of two police cars pulls up in front of our house. Imagine, only ten or fifteen minutes before, I’d gotten a phone call telling me what’d appened. And here I’d been complaining to myself: Where is everybody? Am I going to have to make my own supper?

First page to last, The Highland Book of Platitudes, originally published in Scotland, does not contain a platitude that addresses a woman falling in love with a woman, and a man falling in love with the same woman. Yet that was the situation with my parents—and this included our next-door neighbor Reese Mac Isaac. In 1941 Reese Mac Isaac was thirty-five years old. Her hair was the color of dark honey, she was slim and dressed smart, and was, to my mind, as lovely and mysterious as any woman you’d see in an advertisement for perfume in the Saturday Evening Post. My family didn’t have a subscription, but you could fi nd copies in the lobby of the Lord Nelson Hotel, on Spring Garden Road across from the Public Gardens.

In fact, Reese was employed as a switchboard operator at the hotel. Also, she’d taken acting lessons, and in 1937 had appeared in Widow’s Walk. It was a picture about a woman whose husband’s fishing boat capsizes in a storm on the same night she’d been dallying with the handsome village doctor. Out of guilt and remorse, the woman goes mad and spends the rest of her nights in a widow’s walk atop her house. For the few months that it was being filmed, Widow’s Walk was all the gossip. Referred to as “an all-Canadian production,” most of it was shot near Port Medway—they’d even built a temporary lighthouse.

In the heart of winter the following year, Widow’s Walk played in Halifax and I went to see it with my parents. Just after the opening credits, Reese Mac Isaac appeared on screen. She played a hotel switchboard operator! “Hold on, please,”she said, and listened through an earpiece. “I’m sorry, your party is not answering. Try again later, please.” This scene took all of thirty seconds. Still, I was impressed, and though Widow’s Walk had no true movie stars in it and box-officewise it fell short of popularity, I imagined all sorts of associations. I wondered, Had Reese met Loretta Young? Had she met Tyrone Power? Had she met Jean Harlow? When the meager audience fi led out of the theater, I said, “Pretty lucky of them to find someone with firsthand experience with switchboards like Reese has!”

Right there on the sidewalk my parents fell apart laughing. My mother said, “Darling, I hate to point out the obvious, but Reese Mac Isaac’s cameo took place in the switchboard cubby she actually works in, six a.m. to three p.m. every day but Sunday.”

“Hardly a big stretch,” my father said.

“I don’t care,” I said. “She did well with what she was given.”

A week after the funerals, as I lay on the sofa drinking whiskey to try and help me sleep, I realized that I didn’t begrudge my father that he loved Reese Mac Isaac. The same went for my mother, all received morality notwithstanding, for which I didn’t give a good goddamn, not in the least. I knew that my parents no longer loved each other. Since I was eight or nine I knew it, even earlier. Civility had become their mainstay. Civility bowed and curtsied—“Good night, dear”—as they went to separate bedrooms.

Excerpted from What Is Left The Daughter by Howard Norman. Copyright 2010 by Howard Norman. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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