American in Nova Scotia

View from Cabot Trail, Old Smokey Mtn
Cape Breton Island

Destination: Nova Scotia

Book: My Famous Evening: Nova Scotia Sojourns, Diaries, and Preoccupations, (2004) by Howard Norman

Howard Norman, American writer,  focuses on Nova Scotia  in this eclectic book. Like one of those patchwork quilts made of individual squares that tell facets of a story, My Famous Evening reflects Norton’s view of the essentials of Nova Scotia in an introduction and five essays/stories that “tell it slant” as Emily Dickinson advises.

He makes it perfectly clear in his introduction that he is “from away” as Nova Scotians refer to anyone not native to the province. (Donnie Campbell, musician at the ceilidh we attended at Baddeck on Cape Breton Island, made a joke of it. He asked how many in the audience were “from away”– south of the channel that separates Cape Breton Island from the mainland of Nova Scotia.)

I enjoyed all of My Famous Evening, but the introduction in particular would have lured me to Nova Scotia, if I had not already been there. Norman talks about Leo Tolstoy and the house of Victor Hugo’s daughter in Halifax, places to go birdwatching, cemeteries where Titanic victims rest, ghosts and lighthouses–many reasons to plan travel to Nova Scotia.

Here’s an  excerpt from the introduction as Norman explains the book’s structure, “intersecting facets of reminiscence”.

Chapter One, “My Famous Evening,” has to do with the life and letters of Marlais Quire, a young woman who in 1923 left her home in Nova Scotia and traveled down to New York, in the decidedly ill-fated attempt to see the famous writer Joseph Conrad read from his works.

I did not get around to opening the Kindle app until late in the trip. My sister, Paula, and I were in the beautiful Des Barres Manor in the tiny town of Guysborough, on the northeastern coast of mainland Nova Scotia, when I finished the introduction and opened the first chapter.

Paula at the parlour bar at DesBarres Manor
Paula at the parlour bar at DesBarres Manor

I discovered that the story concerned a woman from Guysborough who wrote letters to her sister about her extraordinary experience. Eerie coincidence. I was very glad that I continued to read. Norman masterfully presents other people’s stories without undue interference, and he pretty much lets the rebellious woman’s letters speak for themselves, enhanced by  pithy comments from her sister, who was upwards of eighty when he interviewed her. What starts out sounding only mildly out of the ordinary, becomes a study in psychology and relationships and along the way sheds light on the provincialism of Nova Scotia in the early 20th century.

In Chapter Two, he is gathering people’s stories of  “forerunners”–events that foretell the future, or spells to influence other people. The folk beliefs of any people shed great light on the region, and I found this chapter to be eye-opening.

Norman says, “Chapter Three, ‘A Birder’s Notebook,’ is an homage to the Bay of Fundy and the Mi’kmaq hero-giant, Glooskap, and provides a few Mi’kmaq folktales about Glooskap.” Norman is a devout birdwatcher, and some of the watching got a bit tedious for me, but still painted a picture of what to expect in this landscape.

Glooscop Statue, Glooscap Heritage Center, Nova Scotia
Glooscap Statue, Glooscap Heritage Center (That tiny person is me.)

Since one of my own objectives was to learn about the native people of Nova Scotia, we had visited the Glooskap Cultural Center and bought some books of legends to add to the knowledge we picked up from the exhibits there. It was great fun to read the tales of the Mi’kmaq, that like all good folk tales explain the “why” behind natural happenings. Glooscap, like the Greek’s Hercules, or America’s Paul Bunyan, is a giant with a lot of work to do to help beings of normal size.

This book struck me as a conversation with a friend who has been to the place and knows it well–so much more rewarding than the sterility of a go-here-do-this guidebook. The final chapter of My Famous Evening, a memoir of a famous poet  and the epilogue, about a photographer who focuses on “the mood engendered by the landscape, bleak weather, and light in October, November, and into early December in Cape Breton..,” continue the charming conversation.

The whole book, original and seemingly random in its approach, sheds essential light on Nova Scotia, and the American author’s love of the area shines through every page. I highly recommend My Famous Evening for the traveler’s library and if you are going to travel to Nova Scotia, it is essential reading. (I’m not the only one who thinks so, this walking tour site recommends it, too. Click on their “Itinerary at a Glance” to see some of the places Paula and I visited.)

My trip to Nova Scotia was partly sponsored by Nova Scotia Tourism and participating hotels. I purchased the book for the Kindle app on my Netbook, but you can click on the link of the title and purchase your own hard cover, Kindle or otherwise at Amazon, and I’ll benefit by a few cents. Photos used here are my own, and I retain all rights.

**I would just like to add that although I give you links to Amazon because I am an Amazon affiliate, I would also be happy if you bought this book and others about Nova Scotia from my friends at Longitude Books or your local Indie bookseller.

Had you heard of Howard Norman? Which of the excuses to travel that he talks about would be most alluring to you?

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

2 thoughts on “American in Nova Scotia

  1. This is a book I definitely WANT to read- as quite a few of my ancestors come from Nova Scotia- One day I want to visit Boston- and New Hampshire and Nova Scotia– exploring all these places to my heart’s content- in the meantime, I’ll just have to be content with reading about them!!! You’ve made the book sound very fascinating so I will definitely read it!!

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