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By Kate Tuttle
“Cea Person’s grandparents met as teenagers, bonding over their shared loved of nature and the outdoors. The family they raised eschewed convention, for good and ill: Cea’s grandfather, Papa Dick, railed against the government and conventionality while his wife and daughters embraced marijuana. Everyone went in for nudity and a free attitude toward sexuality. When Cea was a toddler, the clan went completely off the grid, living in a teepee in Canada, a daylong trip away from the nearest town. ‘We slept beneath layers of bearskins with heated rocks in our beds,’ Person writes, ‘but even then, we woke up with icy ears and snot frozen to the tips of our noses.’
Accounts of early childhood are tricky – too many details and it’s impossible to trust the writer’s memory – but Person navigates the challenge with real grace. Her clear-eyed memoir captures her family’s quest and its collapse without bitterness. Despite her family’s many (many!) instances of lousy judgment, Person writes lovingly that, ‘if nothing else, they were good at seeing the humor in their predicaments.'”
By Marcia Kaye
“I used to wonder what became of children born to hippie parents in the ’60s, all those little Moonglows and Feathers and Cosmic Rainbows raised in communes amid peace, free love and homegrown weed. Did they find eternal enlightenment? Or did they rebel and become non-smoking, monogamous accountants?
We’re learning more about these flower children now that they’re hitting middle age and writing memoirs. Among the newest and liveliest is North of Normal: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Counterculture Family, and How I Survived Both by a Canadian author with a suitably hippie handle: Cea Sunrise Person. (That’s her real name; her Swedish ancestors must have dropped the second S in Persson somewhere along the line.)
North of Normal contains so many jaw-dropping scenes it makes Jeannette Walls’ childhood (The Glass Castle) look almost conventional. Born near Hills, B.C., in 1969 to a 16-year-old mother, Person lived with mom, two aunts, an uncle and her grandparents in hand-sewn tipis in the wilderness, mostly in northern Alberta and Yukon. Her earliest memories are idyllic. At age four she would gallop bareback across meadows, armed with a bow and arrow. She would frolic to Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ as the adults held nude cookouts, smoked pot, shared rambling philosophies and had sex with interested visitors.
And there were plenty, what with the cool music, copious drugs, sexually available teenage girls (including her mother) and grandparents who were totally groovy with it all. When Person received a vial of coloured beads on her fourth Christmas, she made attractive roach clips for every member of her family.
The romance of this freewheeling lifestyle began to fade when Person was about five and sensed her life was not normal. She expressed discomfort around adults ‘doing the screwing’ but was told to get over her hang-ups. Her woefully needy mother had chaotic affairs with a sad parade of unsuitable and sometimes dangerous men. Her grandmother was seriously depressed, her uncle schizophrenic, one aunt developmentally delayed and the other full of rage.
Person was raised in an environment of appalling neglect, couched as liberation. Every few pages there’s a life-risking peril: ‘I don’t remember falling in the river… ‘ or ‘…caught our tipi on fire…’ or ‘…and then the bear came.’
Person, a bright child who owned a single book, The Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature, came to realize other little girls wore underwear, went to school, used toilets and had parents and grandparents who didn’t lie around naked and stoned. The mind boggles; the heart breaks.
North of Normal follows Person’s gradual awareness that somebody had to be the grown-up. Tall, leggy, blue-eyed and stunning, the young teen – once so mesmerized by a young visitor’s Barbie doll that she stole it – ran away to become a symbol of everything her family abhorred: an international high-fashion model, living unsupervised in New York City and flying solo to shoots in Paris and Mauritius.
It was a rich and glamorous life – until it proved to be a wilderness of a different kind. Person spent years reconciling her family’s idealism with the stark actuality. She reconnected with her Californian dad and his attractively ordinary life. Learning family secrets helped her understand her mother, as well as the grandfather she once revered.
One of the challenges in recounting the past is piecing together a complex jumble of old memories, and Person admits timelines and details may be inexact. For instance, she describes rocking out to Steve Miller Band’s ‘Jet Airliner’ in 1974; that song wasn’t released till 1977. Such flaws don’t detract from the overall forcefulness of this autobiography. North of Normal serves to expose counterculture realities, illuminate family relationships that juxtapose love with torment, and illustrate the power of forgiveness.
Expressing no bitterness, this happily married Vancouver mother of three has dedicated North of Normal to her mother, ‘who taught me to focus on the positive and banish fear to the dungeon of useless emotion.’ It seems there’s a bit of hippie yet in this wilderness child.”
MYRTLE BEACH SUN NEWS-SYNDICATED THROUGHOUT USA
By Terri Schlichenmeyer
“You stopped in the store the other day, and stopped short.
In all its electric-colored glory, tie-dye is back. Or maybe it never left, just passed down by Baby Boomers like you who also loved groovy music, an everybody-helps-everybody mentality, and how wonderfully carefree that felt.
Ah, the good ol’ days… or were they? For author Cea Sunrise Person, the answer was ‘no’ for years, but in her new memoir North of Normal, she explains how she made peace with it.
Cea Sunrise Person’s grandfather was more at home in nature than he was anywhere else. He’d always wanted to live in the outdoors and so, shortly after he came home from Korea, he took his new bride to live in the wilderness.
In about the mid-’60s, the family (including three girls and a boy) moved to Wyoming, then to California where they fit in perfectly: They’d already embraced the emerging counter-culture, so ‘pot smoking, nude cookouts, and philosophical discussions’ were easy additions. Their home soon became known as a clothing-optional place to hang out and score drugs, and ‘the parents were always totally groovy with it all.’
Not-so-groovy: Person’s mother was 16 when she became pregnant. She married the boy but they parted before their baby was born, so Person’s first home was a drafty shack in the British Columbia woods. Later, when she was a toddler, the family moved into a tipi on Indian land where she recalls the freedom of an idyllic childhood spent on chores, pretending, and running through meadow, woods, and water.
But that, too, would end: when Person was 5, her mother met a man who whisked them away to a life of tent-living, theft and things little girls shouldn’t see. By the time she was 13, Person had enough of the ‘misfits,’ so she lied about her age, left family behind, and started a surprising career – though she still wondered why they couldn’t seem to be ‘normal.’
Twenty-five years later, broke and twice-divorced, she finally learned the truth.
As a tail-end Baby Boomer, I was really excited to start North of Normal. Would author Cea Sunrise Person’s recollections be ones that I shared, too?
No. Not even remotely, which just made this book more enjoyable.
Through memories of her own and that of her mother’s family, Person tells what it was like to be raised by an unconventional hippie mom who did her best but was, herself, a product of the times. That alone would be a far-out tale, but the way it’s told makes this a book to read: Person is a gifted storyteller, and that snatched me up from the first paragraph. I also was fascinated by her voice, as it changed with the age she was as she remembered.
Beware that this coming-of-age memoir contains explicit language, but it fits with what you’ll read. Yes, it might make you wince but you’ll be so engrossed in the tale that you might not even notice. For you, that’s a hint of what North of Normal has in store…”
By Erin Beth Langille
“Warmly told with a strong, clear and funny voice, peppered with dramatic action, and full of quirky characters … equal parts harrowing and convivial.
The sense of survival in this book is multilayered … there’s survival of the wilderness, of child abuse, of incest, of addiction, of rape, of divorce, of mental illness, of mental handicaps and of abandonment. The author even does a quick tour through fashion industry and Internet dating. Mostly though, Cea has to endure the plain old stupidity and bad choices of her elders, who are either too doped-up, too confused or too single-minded to know better. She tells of survivors within survivors within survivors, generations of her family who simultaneously witness and torment each other, sometimes with their foolhardy intentions, and sometimes with their absence. Dysfunction and folly run deep, but she also conveys the sense of humour and openness that is key to the family resilience.”
By Catherine Hollis
“From the Canadian Wilderness to the International Runway
There are many reasons to love a good misery memoir: In my case, reading about other people’s dysfunctional childhoods offers a sense of community, a sisterhood of resilient Gen Xers who survived a 1970s childhood. Cea Sunrise Person’s engaging new memoir, North of Normal, evokes both the miserable excesses and occasional beauty of growing up in a counterculture family in the wilderness of the Me Decade.
For the Person family, the wilderness was real. Cea’s grandfather Dick was not only committed to living off the land, but highly skilled at doing so and deeply suspicious of Western civilization. He takes his family-grandma Jeanne, baby Cea, her teenage mother and two aunts-from California into the Canadian outback to live in a tipi and survive off game and wild plants. Clothing is optional, sex is out in the open, and much pot is smoked.
This outback idyll of sorts is broken up by Cea’s mother, who follows one man after another into questionable circumstances. Cea is lucky, she is told, to have a mother who loves her, but as Cea grows older she wants the one thing her mother can’t give her: normality. Leaving home at 13, Cea breaks with her family toward independence, which is seen as a betrayal.
While the strength and resilience Cea learns in the wilderness help her survive the predators of the ‘civilized’ world (she goes on to become an internationally successful model), it’s a long journey to normal, whatever that is. There’s not a shred of self-pity here, which makes the depiction of a child adrift in hippie decadence all the more affecting. North of Normal offers readers a well-crafted story and a sensible, clear-eyed narrator.”
“In this affecting memoir, Person describes growing up in the early 1970s amid the ‘tipi camp’ where her extended family was squatting on Indian lands in Alberta, Canada. With a free-spirited teenage mother-the daughter of a Korean War vet and forest ranger who yearned to live in nature unencumbered by the U.S. government-Person was doted upon by her pot-smoking grandparents and uninhibited if emotionally erratic aunts and uncles (one uncle, Dane, moved in and out of a mental asylum), although it was challenging living in tipis with no running water, eating whatever her grandfather, Papa Dick, happened to hunt, and using the communal ‘shit pit,’ all in a harsh northern climate. As long as she had her mother close, Person was happy, except that her mother had to find men to support them, and therein began a peripatetic cycle of moving in with one marijuana-growing, thieving boyfriend after another, or back to the tipis with her grandparents. From time to time Person did visit her father, a middle-class professional established in a new marriage in San Francisco, yet it was a modeling competition at age 13 that allowed her finally to feel somewhat ‘normal’ and find her own identity.”
“A former international model charts her unconventional childhood in the 1960s with a hippie-ish family.
Person begins with the lives of her progressively thinking maternal grandparents, a Korean War veteran and a baker’s daughter who used marijuana to soothe debilitating bouts of depression. That remedy found its way to the author’s mother once the family moved to California. Then, after a failed marriage, the family relocated to a ‘tumbledown house in a town just over the Canadian border,’ where the author was born. Another move to the northern Alberta wilderness in the early 1970s further estranged the group from contemporary civilization; Person and her family gathered berries, laundered clothing in a river and slept in a ramshackle tepee. The author grew up with an appreciation for nature and for her grandfather ‘Papa Dick,’ who expanded their camps to include visiting ‘free-love-and marijuana-saturated’ transients interested in living the same unfettered lifestyle. Further moves to southern British Columbia and beyond with her mother’s new beau, Karl, eventually became stifling for Person as she came of age and preferred reuniting with her birth father to living with her pothead grandparents. While the author predominantly chronicles her eccentric childhood, in the final chapters, she details her independent ascent into the modeling world, where she bravely traversed the competitive fashion markets in Manhattan and Europe at age 15, alone, with barely an acknowledgment from her oblivious mother. Person also soberingly examines the myriad mistakes and struggles in her own adult life (‘I cheated on my first husband with seven different men… I had done so much coke and drank so much booze that I had beat the crap out of my boyfriend’), mirroring her dysfunctional upbringing. Personal closure occurred with forgiveness and a rebonding with her mother years before her death.
Written with stylistic clarity and studded with family photos, Person’s lucid memories present a stirring scrapbook.”
Author of Into the Abyss
“With North of Normal Cea Person gives us an unforgettable memoir of a turbulent wilderness childhood. Person writes about her harrowing, on-the-edge existence and dysfunctional family with unflinching detail and a generosity of spirit reminiscent of Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle. What emerges is an equally awe-inspiring true story of one young woman’s incredible determination to escape her terrible and traumatic circumstances, and triumph against all odds to create a happy, successful life.”