Living With Tragedy And Fright In A 'Beautiful Place' Writer Howard Norman's memoir focuses on particular people and moments. His stories contain disturbing incidents, from the murder-suicide of a mother and her young son in his family's home, to the accidental death of a swan. He also tells of a strange, frightening and humorous Inuit shaman he met in the Arctic.
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Living With Tragedy And Fright In A 'Beautiful Place'

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Living With Tragedy And Fright In A 'Beautiful Place'

Living With Tragedy And Fright In A 'Beautiful Place'

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It has been 10 years since Howard Norman had to reclaim his home after a horrible crime happened there. The writer and his family rented their home one summer to a poet and her young son. The woman killed her son and then killed herself in Howard Norman's home. Norman has written a new memoir. It's called "I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place."

The final chapter describes how he and his family moved through that horrible event. But the memoir begins in a very different place: His childhood in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He told us the story about a curiosity gone terribly wrong; how he borrowed a book from a bookmobile with a specific intention, to learn how to capture a swan.

HOWARD NORMAN: It didn't go very well. It was a little lake called Reeds Lake. I had a book that was really based on Native American ways of trapping birds and, of course, the origin of that had been for sustenance, to actually eat. But I concocted a bird trap and I brought it out into Reeds Lake one night and a huge surprise - just startling and disturbing surprise - is that the swan got caught in it and it drowned. And I think from that point on, and I don't want to melodramatize(ph) this, but I think from that point on, I really realized that there can be an equation between one's curiosities and what constructs memories not always in a positive way.

MARTIN: The book is rather sparse for a memoir. I mean, you have chosen to highlight very particular moments and people, including a downright frightening Inuit shaman, whom you met when you were working as a translator in the Arctic. And I wonder if you would mind...

NORMAN: Terrifying character.


MARTIN: Sounds it.


MARTIN: Could you first off describe this man? What did he look like and why was he so frightening?

NORMAN: Well, this is up in the Northwest Territories. And this particular guy, I stayed on much later than most people do into the winter and this ngakak, or shaman, took a particular dislike toward me. And he was so physically aggressive that it was quite startling. And it was a constant confrontational relationship for weeks.

MARTIN: He did not want you there.

NORMAN: Did not want me there, would announce him not wanting me there. He had a peculiar, I guess you would say, a kind of coterie of transistor radios that he wore around his neck that was always playing just static. It was like an orchestration of static. And, of course, that just resonated very powerfully because it implies a kind of encoded relationship with the world.

You know, you hear the sound of a radio but you don't hear the voice, so it implies a sort of secret communication. And though shamans have reputations for being able to communicate with the invisible world - the spirit world - I had no doubt that any of that was true. I didn't have to suspend disbelief.

MARTIN: At one point you write about a potential curse that he could inflict on you, and it's this really amazing image of something rather quotidian, but to actually imagine it, that he has the potential to force you to live in a little snow globe.

NORMAN: You know, those snow globes, they still sell them everywhere. And there was a general store in this little village and they imported a lot of snow globes. It was an incredibly popular item. And, of course, there is a whole repertoire of motifs in those snow globes. There were Hawaiian dancers and village life and Christmas scenes, and he threatened to place me inside one and drop it through the ice.

MARTIN: We should point out he did give you a choice, which was generous. You could choose which snow globe you were going to be banished to.

NORMAN: Yeah, I thought that was very generous of him. I don't know if he gave everybody a choice. And I think it was also a commentary, if you will, on the kind of commodities that would come into those little general stores. I mean, he could have turned me into a broom of a snow shovel. But he chose to imprison me, I suppose you would say, into a snow globe. I got out of there quite fast.

MARTIN: But we do need to know, for the record, which snow globe did you choose?

NORMAN: I think it's in the memoir. I think it chose - did I choose the Hawaiian dancer?

MARTIN: I think that's a wise...

NORMAN: And, of course, I thought later my daughter was born in Hawaii. I thought there was some connection there.

MARTIN: It has been a decade since this strange and terrible thing happened in your home, a tragedy. The woman you had rented your house to killed her young son and then killed herself. You and your wife and daughter decided to keep living there, to not be forced away by this horrible thing that had happened in your space. But it did take...

NORMAN: Very conscious decision, too.

MARTIN: Yeah. I wonder if you don't mind talking a little bit about that decision-making process.

NORMAN: I don't mind talking about it at all. I appreciate your directness. It was very, very clear that there were certain maybe platitudes or proverbs and so on and so forth that might really give one a sense of instruction, if not possibility. And I think we just did not want someone else's demons to chase us out of a home. Having said that, years later when we moved, there was definitely an acknowledgment that some kind of weight had been lifted.

MARTIN: How long did you live there after the fact?

NORMAN: A couple years.

MARTIN: OK. If I might ask a more personal question about that event. It is so strange, because this was not a tragedy that was inflicted directly on your family. Your family did not suffer directly. You just intersected with this crime, with this tragedy. And that is a different kind of grief, I would imagine.

NORMAN: Yeah. I guess it's the Old Testament notion of something being visited upon you. And I'm not sure if I mention this in the book or not - I might have and I should have if I didn't. But our neighbor in Vermont, Dave Mamet(ph), drove over and he provided this old Jewish proverb: If you're walking down a road and you see a house on fire, a good person does not wish it to be someone else's house. And the paradox in there to me, Rachel, is that your impulse is to blame or to get rid of something that has created this disequilibrium in your life, or in your psyche. But actually, the better thing to do was to simply try to create as coherent a context for it as possible. And properly place your sympathies where they belong. In my case, they certainly belonged with that little boy, and not try to figure out the human condition or the failings of people. But just place your sympathies and try to move on.

MARTIN: The new memoir is called "I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place." It is written by Howard Norman. Mr. Norman, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

NORMAN: My pleasure, Rachel. Thank you so much for having me.


MARTIN: You are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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