Norman, Howard A

views updated

NORMAN, Howard A.

Nationality: American. Born: Toledo, Ohio, 4 March 1949. Education: Graduated form Western Michigan University; graduate study at the Folklore Institute of Indiana University. Family: Married Jane Shore; one daughter. Career: Worked variously as a translator for the World Society for the Protection of Animals, as a member of a fire crew in Manitoba, Canada, and as a field naturalist; instructor in Native American literature, University of Maryland; translator and writer. Agent: Melanie Jackson Agency, 250 West 57th Street, Suite 1119, New York, New York 10107, U.S.A.



The Northern Lights. New York, Summit Books, 1987.

The Bird Artist. New York, Farrar, Straus, 1994.

The Museum Guard. New York, Farrar, Straus, 1998.

Fiction (for children)

The Owl Scatterer, illustrated by Michael McCurdy. Boston, AtlanticMonthly Press, 1986.

Who-Paddled-Backward-with-Trout, illustrated by Ed Young. Boston, Joy Street Books, 1987.

Reteller, The Girl Who Dreamed Only Geese, and Other Tales of the Far North, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. New York, Harcourt, 1997.

Short Stories

Kiss in the Hotel Joseph Conrad, and Other Stories. New York, Summit Books, 1989.


Compiler and translator The Wishing Bone Cycle: Narrative Poems from the Swampy Cree Indians. Stonehill Publishing, 1976; enlarged edition, Ross-Erikson, 1982.

Compiler and translator Where the Chill Came From: Cree Windigo Tales and Journeys. San Francisco, North Point Press, 1982.

Contributor, Off the Beaten Path: Stories of Place, edited by JosephBarbato and Lisa Weinerman Horak. New York, North Point Press, 1998.

Editor, Northern Tales: Traditional Stories of Eskimo and Indian Peoples, New York, Pantheon Books, 1990.

Foreword, Indian Tales by Jaime de Angulo. New York, North PointPress, 1997.

Introduction, Lafayette Life: Words and Images Since 1928 by JaneDonovan and Brian McClure. Washington, D.C., Historic Chevy Chase, D.C., 1999.

Reteller, How Glooskap Outwits the Ice Giants, and Other Tales of the Maritime Indians, wood engravings by Michael McCurdy. Boston, Little, Brown, 1989.

Reteller, Trickster and the Fainting Bird, illustrated by Tom Pohrt. San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1999.

Translator The Woe Shirt: Caribbean Folk Tales, Paule Barton. Penmaen Press, 1980.

* * *

Howard Norman creates characters in the midst of transformation brought on by life's arbitrary occurrences, which most would label fate. These people are compelling, often humorous, slightly odd, and maddeningly introspective. As a result, Norman's novels are the kind that stick with the reader far after the book is finished. Maybe the best single word to describe his style is haunting.

Norman has set each of his novels in remote villages and towns in Canada. "It is where my imagination, for better or worse, comes alive," he has said. The harsh Canadian landscapes are reflected in the mindset of the inhabitants. They are products of their environment and succumb to the unpredictability of life. On the wall in his tiny writing studio in the mountains of Vermont, Norman keeps an old Jewish proverb taped to his desk, "Man makes plans, God laughs."

A look into Norman's background exposes many of the themes he now includes in his fiction. He was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1949, the son of parents who met in a Jewish orphanage. Norman experienced a difficult childhood growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They were poor and an absentee father exacerbated their plight. Norman found solace in libraries and reading, especially the adventure stories of Jack London.

After the death of his best friend, Norman dropped out of high school and went to live with relatives in Toronto. While working in a brush-fire crew, he met Inuit and Cree Indians and developed a fascination with northern folktales. He studied the native languages and realized he wanted to become a writer.

After passing his high school equivalency exam, Norman enrolled in Western Michigan University, graduating with degrees in zoology and English. He later received a Master's degree at Indiana University in folklore. It was life as a freelance writer, however, that would serve as Norman's true education.

He returned to Canada and immersed himself in Indian culture, transcribing stories handed down through generations of Canadian Indians. As a freelancer, he took on every assignment he was offered, including documentaries for Canadian film companies and travel pieces. He moved around frequently and lived in the Arctic and Greenland. Somewhat a loner, Norman modeled naturalist and bird artist Edward Lear, and hoped also to become a bird artist, but readily admits his artistic ability wasn't up to par.

Norman turned his translation efforts into several books. In 1978, he published The Wishing Bone Cycle: Narrative Poems from the Swampy Cree Indians. Four years later, a collection of stories came out titled Where the Chill Came From. In 1994, he produced another book of translations, Northern Tales: Traditional Stories of Eskimo and Indian Peoples.

Norman later followed with two children's books, How Glooskap Outwits the Ice Giants and The Girl Who Dreamed only Geese and Other Tales of the Far North. Although his work in the North served as a wonderful literary apprenticeship, Norman eventually longed for a more normal life and a center that he did not have as a child or young adult.

After moving to Boston, Norman found his center when he met poet Jane Shore at a friend's house on Thanksgiving in 1981. The two dated and eventually married in 1984. It was Shore who pushed him to work on his novels. Norman was amazed at her dedication to poetry and impressive work ethic.

Norman began writing in earnest and submitted some pages to Ploughshares, which published them. This start propelled him toward the 1987 publication of The Northern Lights, a novel set in northern Manitoba. The book received vast critical acclaim. Even more surprising, since Norman was virtually unknown at the time, was the book's nomination for the National Book award.

The Northern Lights is a coming-of-age story of Noah Krainik and his best friend Pelly Bay (modeled after Norman's friend Paul, who died of a rare blood disease). Like Norman, Noah and his mother are abandoned by his father. The book is filled with quirky characters, Cree hunters, and self-righteous missionaries. Their world is a lonely oneharsh land with little contact with the outside world. When Pelly is killed in a freak accident, the novel shifts to present-day Toronto.

In 1989, Norman's short story collection Kiss in the Hotel Joseph Conrad was published. Set again in isolated upper Canada, the stories deal with unsettled characters who are forced to deal with extremes: temperature, age, feelings, distanceconstants in all Norman's work. Forces out of control, mainly the frozen chill of winter, conspire against the characters. Although these people are generally misfits and oddballs, Norman treats their lives with tenderness and compassion.

Critics praised Norman's second novel, The Bird Artist, hailing it as "one of the most perfect and original novels that I have read in years" and noting that it "glows like a nightlight in the reader's mind." The impetus for the novel developed in the late 1970s while Norman researched a documentary in a fishing village in Newfoundland. He stayed in a church annex that contained a watercolor mural of an ibis. After asking around, he discovered the artist had been acquitted of murder, but then lived as an outcast in the village. The basic blueprint of the novel was formed.

Once again set in Canada, the book explores tiny Witless Bay, Newfoundland, in 1911. It is the story of Fabian Vas, a bird artist who murders his mother's lover, the town lighthouse keeper. It is a tale filled with promiscuity, daily life, and murder. Witless Bay is the quintessential Norman setting: rocky, course, and isolated. The reader feels the tension of the story on every page, which Norman fills with a kind of inevitability. He shows that good people can be driven to do hideous things. The Bird Artist also captured a National Book award nomination.

Norman's 1998 novel The Museum Guard is the story of DeFoe Russet, an orphaned museum guard who desperately loves Imogen Linny, the caretaker of Halifax's Jewish cemetery. After a mysterious painting entitled "Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam" arrives at the museum, Linny starts believing her life is captured in the piece, and she teeters on the brink of insanity. Set in the late 1930s, the novel examines small-town life while also exploring how Hitler's menacing threat in Europe affects its protagonists.

Describing the work, Norman explained, "I tried to write a novel that was very much about the sense of incipient doom." In contrast to his first two novels, The Museum Guard explores interior spaces, not the great Canadian spaces. Relationships are the central theme: Russet and his carousing uncle, Edward, who raised him; Linny and the two men; and ultimately the obsession that develops between Linny and the painting itself.

Norman is currently working on his next novel, The Haunting of L., which he says is about faith, reason, and murder. It takes place in the late 1920s in Halifax and grew out of a photograph from the period that reportedly reveals Indian souls rising out of an airplane wreck.

In a brief fiction career, Norman has astounded readers with tales imbibing the mysticism, mystery, and stark contrasts of remote Canada, ultimately drawing on the Indian myths and folklore he learned traveling throughout the tundra. His characters yearn for a better life and search for the right path, always combating the inevitable forks that arise. Norman is a master storyteller, chronicling the lives of common people who deal with the good and bad coupled with human emotions.

Bob Batchelor

About this article

Norman, Howard A

Updated About content Print Article