Living With Tragedy And Fright In A 'Beautiful Place'

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Howard Norman spent part of a decade in the Arctic translating Inuit tales and studying birds, where he experienced a startling and disturbing incident with a swan.

"I had a book that was really based on Native American ways of trapping birds and of course the origin of that would have been for sustenance, to actually eat. But I concocted a bird trap and I brought it out into Reeds Lake one night," Norman recounts the experience to NPR's Rachel Martin. A swan "got caught in it and it drowned. And I think, from that point on, and I don't want to melodramatize 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."

Norman's memories of the strange incidents of his life compose his memoir. Rather sparse for a memoir, he instead chooses to highlight very particular people, such as a downright frightening Inuit shaman, and moments, such as a tragic murder-suicide of a woman and her young son in his home. Norman, his wife, and daughter decided to continue living there, giving a certain weight to the title of his memoir, I Hate To Leave This Beautiful Place.

Interview Highlights

On deciding to continue living in a house where a tragedy occurred

"It was very, very clear that there were certain, maybe, platitudes, or proverbs, or 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."

On the different kind of grief his family experienced intersecting with the tragedy

"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, 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 you think 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."

On his experience with an Inuit shaman who did not like him

"I stayed on much later than most people do into the winter, and this Angakoq, 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 a number of weeks.

"[He] 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 were 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 would hear the sound of a radio, but you don't hear the voice, so it implies a sort of secret communication, and those 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."

On being threatened with imprisonment in a snow globe

"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 was 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.

"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 or 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."

On at least being given a choice for which snow globe he would be banished to

"I thought that was very generous of him. I don't know if he gave everybody a choice ... Did I choose the Hawaiian dancer? (laughs) And, of course, I thought ... later my daughter was born in Hawaii. I thought maybe there was some connection there."

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