SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Howard Norman's new novel,�"What Is Left the Daughter," opens with the kind of tragedy that reminds you there really is no such thing as a small town. Wyatt Hillyer's 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 in a small town will be caught up in a Shakespearean range of war, love, and an ineradicable moment of hate and loss, and lives that endure. Howard Norman, the National Book Award nominee for his novels�"The Northern Lights"�and�"The Bird Artist," joins us from eastern Massachusetts.
Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. HOWARD NORMAN (Author, "What is Left the Daughter"): Great to talk to you.
SIMON: This whole novel is a prolonged - in the form of a prolonged letter to the daughter that Wyatt Hillyer barely knows.
Mr. NORMAN: Yes. I think for a number of years I've been rather preoccupied with the nature of an epistolary life. I suppose partly it's because not much time really passes in an email exchange.
And 20 or 25 years ago I was on one of the last mail boats that went up the coast of Newfoundland and made all these stops. And it was about a six week trip, Scott. And I kept thinking during that time, what do you put into a letter that you want to last more than just the moment? And how is time contained in a letter? And so when I wrote this book I had intended from the beginning to make it a single letter.
SIMON: Boy. Setting is Nova Scotia, Canada, in August of 1941. Canada is at war, but distantly.
Mr. NORMAN: The war seems to start on the radio - radio broadcasts coming in from disparate sources. And then slowly U-boats are sighted, as we know - as a historical fact - off the coast of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. And there are various sinkings of civilian and military ferries that are running between Newfoundland and Halifax, until what I consider sort of the apex of this tragic sequence of events. In October of 1942 the Caribou Ferry was sunk by a German U-boat called the Laughing Cow. And that really is at the center of this whole story.
SIMON: I want to get you to read a section. Wyatt, after the double suicide of his parents, is sent to live with an aunt and uncle in - does this town actually exist - Middle Economy, Nova Scotia?
Mr. NORMAN: Yes. Upper, Middle and Lower Economy exists. Right along Route 2, near Great Village where the great poet Elizabeth Bishop was partly raised.
SIMON: Who earns a mention in the book, to say the least.
Mr. NORMAN: Yes, I had to get her in there.
SIMON: Let me get you to read a section. I don't think we reveal any plot points to report that Wyatt has an abiding affection for his cousin Tilda.
Mr. NORMAN: I hadn't set eyes on Tilda in close to four years, since the summer of 1937 when she would've been going into ninth form. On that occasion, Tilda had come to Halifax with my aunt and uncle, because Constance needed to have a tooth pulled, and they all spent the night at my family's house.
Despite my aunt's being in pain, we had a nice family reunion, though I do recall my father and uncle sitting in the parlor after supper discussing in somber tones Hitler and Germany, commenting on radio broadcasts made by Winston Churchill. My mother sat on the porch providing my aunt with powdered aspirin and commiserating with her over her throbbing tooth.
At one point, Tilda and I were playing a spirited game of checkers at the dining room table when we heard my aunt call out the word groan, which extended into an actual groan. That made us laugh, though sympathetically. Also, we couldnt help but eavesdrop on my father and uncle. My dad's got more opinions about current events than the Smith Brothers have cough drops, Tilda said.
SIMON: Wyatt kind of falls for his cousin, Tilda, who is adopted and therefore no legal bars(ph). But, however, she falls for someone else.
Mr. NORMAN: She meets in Halifax a young German philology student named Hans Mohring. They take the bus out to the Economies and they start courting. He moves in above the bakery and he is there, you might say, at the wrong time and the wrong place. Because when Tilda's - his paramour's mother is killed on the Caribou Ferry, certain rages come out in the community. And there are repercussions that are fatal.
SIMON: Perhaps maybe the historical sense might be different in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, but I think most of us in North America don't appreciate how serious that U-boat war was off the Atlantic coast.
Mr. NORMAN: All I can say is that some of the very oldest people I spoke with researching this book had such graphic memories. I talked to maybe 40 people, Scott, and I dont think there was one who did not break down during the description.
I think it had something to do with the physical proximity. You know, these U-boats were right offshore. Some of them came almost into Halifax Harbor. You could be having tea and look out and see them. And there were an inordinate amount of sinkings. And finally the disturbing nature of these Wolfpacks, as they were often called in the newspaper, really, really, really created an intense sense of agitation, and sometimes that was focused on foreign people in Halifax.
SIMON: In the end, Wyatt had stayed away from his daughter, any contact with his daughter for so many years because there were so many secrets at the heart that he didnt want to impart. What brings him over that, do you think?
Mr. NORMAN: I'd like to think that it is contained in the initial introductory letter, or the beginning of the long letter, I should say, in which he says that he no longer can be defined by what he has not told her. And I suppose I think about that quite a bit: What do you leave somebody? It's not about objects. It's not about money. It's not about superfluous things. It's about the truth of one's life.
I hope that doesnt sound melodramatic, but if there was going to be any hope of a reunion, he had to do this.
SIMON: Because, as he wrote: I hope you'll see these pages through and that whatever else you may think, whatever judgments you come to, please at least accept the knowledge that I've always loved you without a cease.
Mr. NORMAN: I imagine for a daughter to credit that would be very, very difficult.
Mr. NORMAN: Where have you been? Why haven't you been locatable? Why now? All these questions, and so you can only await the answer.
SIMON: Howard Norman, thanks so much.
Mr. NORMAN: My pleasure, thank you.
SIMON: Howard Norman, his new book, "What Is Left the Daughter."