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.