NEW YORK — Howard Norman was just 15 when his best friend, his very closest friend in the entire world, died unexpectedly. "Over a weekend," Norman said. "One of those blood diseases."
The event shattered what for Norman was already a shaky young life. With trouble in his own Midwestern family, Norman dropped out of school and hitch-hiked north. It was 1964, the era of civil rights demonstrations and the first faint voices of protest over Vietnam.
Even now, as he speaks of that period, Norman's soft voice grows more subdued still. In truth, the mood across America then was one of festering tumult. "There were," Norman said, "certain inclinations to clear yourself away from events and culture." Norman ended up in Manitoba, working with a fire crew.
Fluent in Three Dialects
At least half that crew was Cree Indian, standard-bearers of North America's last true hunting and fishing culture. Spread from Hudson's Bay across the plains of Saskatchewan, the Cree remain this continent's largest, most widely distributed tribe of Indians. As his acceptance grew along with his intermittent years of residence with these members of the greater Algonquin group of Indians, Norman found himself fluent in three of the tribe's dialects, "passable" in the remaining two.
The death of Paul, Norman's close friend, and his ongoing experiences among the Cree form the framework for "The Northern Lights" (Summit Books: $16.95), Norman's highly acclaimed first novel.
'You Can Adopt a Region'
"It was not only a different place, but I also wanted a whole different cultural history. I had projected myself into a region of the world that most seemed to collaborate with my imagination," Norman said, sipping coffee during a break from ethnographic studies at the American Museum of Natural History here. "The north seemed for me to embody that." He paused. "Clearly, you can adopt a region, the same way you adopt a family."
Four years in the writing, and aided by a prestigious, $25,000 grant from the Whiting Foundation, Norman's novel captures the cadence of a culture that tells rich stories even in the course of day-to-day existence. "My thumb, it invited the splinter," one character cries out to explain an invading shard of wood. Or, as an elderly Cree woman once lamented by telephone to Norman, serving as a volunteer interpreter between the Cree and the Western physicians who treat them, "My heart has a grudge against my body."
"Phrases that emanated from so deep a hollow in the throat that they seemed like whispers," Norman writes of his early encounters with the Cree. "The shifts in cadence and inflection, and the travels, within a single sentence, from scratchy monotones to lilting, buoyant strains."
Norman himself marvels at his facility for the "very oral milieu" of the Cree, conceding that his comfort with the language is what has allowed him write the novel and to translate the stories in "Northern Tales" (Pantheon Folklore and Fairy Tale Library) and "Where the Chill Came From" (North Point Press). "For some reason I've been lucky," he said. "I can't learn French or Spanish, but I can pick up Algonquin and Eskimo languages. I don't know why."
That ability permitted him to integrate with the Cree, to serve as a translator while working, at age 18, for a wildlife group called the World Society for the Perfection of Animals. Still, he strove to separate himself from the same culture he was embracing.
"There never has been one moment, not any moment, when I had a culturally vicarious feeling, a longing to be something I was not," Norman said. "I knew who they were and who I was." Besides, "I think the Arctic and the sub-Arctic is a place that does quite a bit to dissuade you from fantasy."
'I Am an Outsider'
Norman returns often, and stays in frequent contact with longtime acquaintances from among the Cree. But always, he said, "I am aware that I am an outsider, no matter how old my friends are."
At home with the mythology, the day-to-day heritage of the Cree, Norman found himself focusing in part on how each culture comes to describe where and how it lives. "When you tell a Cree person about someone who owns 500 acres near Big Sur," Norman said, "the operative word is own . They question how someone could own the land."
Far from proprietary, Norman came to feel at one with the land in northern Canada. There was, for example, the 11-month period he spent living in an abandoned fire lookout, conducting a field study on the Canadian lynx. Norman had three short-wave radios, his only steady companions in the Manitoba wilderness.
"I would get the Amsterdam Orchestra, perfectly clearly," he remembered. "So here I was in this fire lookout, alone, and I would have this music. You could sort of eavesdrop on the rest of the world."