A great storyteller
Award-winning author John Norris, who chronicled the city’s past in books such as Historic Nelson and Wo Lee Stories, has died at 88.
Norris’ distinct, personal style won praise and earned him the Lieutenant Governor’s medal for historical writing in 1985 for his book Old Silverton.
“He created a new kind of historical fiction,” says retired Nelson museum curator and archivist Shawn Lamb. “It was a history book that brought things to life. That was his real strength — he could make you feel like you were there.”
Following Old Silverton, Norris was commissioned to write the first volume in a projected series on Nelson’s history.
“He said, ‘Well, I live in the Slocan and I’m not going to move to Nelson,’” Lamb recalls. “He would need help.”
With the assistance of Lamb, plus Nelson old-timers Alan Ramsden and Henry Stevenson and historian Ted Affleck, Norris embarked on the project, which took about five years to complete.
“We have a huge box of manuscripts,” Lamb says. “That book was written and rewritten and rewritten. There wasn’t enough room [to include everything].”
Published in 1995, Historic Nelson: The Early Years covered the city’s pre-history through to its incorporation. Although Norris originally planned to write a follow-up, he decided he wouldn’t be able to.
“He said ‘I don’t think I can take on another one,’” Lamb says. “We said we perfectly understand, and what you wrote stands alone incredibly well.”
However, Norris subsequently completed several other works, including Wo Lee Stories, a whimsical memoir of his childhood in Nelson. The title paid tribute to a Chinese market gardener in Fairview who left an indelible impression on him. He later recorded it as an audio book.
With photographer Patrizia Menton, he published John’s Garden, a coffee-table book that captured his stunning accomplishments in cultivating his yard.
Born in Silverton on December 13, 1922, Norris wanted to be a teacher, but his mother told him there wasn’t money to send him to university. When World War II began, he joined the navy, and was aboard the HMCS Athabaskan the night it was torpedoed by a German destroyer, killing 128 crew members.
Norris survived and went on to write about it in The Myrmidon Papers. He also published I’m Going to War, a poem in rhyming couplets.
“After the war, through a veteran’s grant he was able to go to university,” his companion Will Castleton says. “He felt very fortunate.”
He taught in Vancouver, Salmo, Nelson, and for six years at the New Denver school for delinquent boys. In 1965, he built a house with Will that scavenged parts from crumbling cabins and abandoned mining camps in the region, and even used timbers from an old train bridge.
“Since he had such a love of the past and was attached to everything local, he made the house quite interesting,” Will says.
A Slocan Valley theatre company produced a historically-inspired play Norris wrote called Mine Tailings to great acclaim.
In recent years, he had been working on a book-length autobiographical work, completed only days before his passing.
“He was very worried about it for a month before he died,” Will says. “He kept saying ‘I’ve almost got it, I’ve almost got it.’ And then a couple of days before [his death] he said ‘Now it’s finished. I can go.’”
Will plans to publish the book, which he says deals with Norris’ “intellectual development … It’s based on the Socratic saying ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ He devoted himself to examining his life very carefully.”
Will is reviewing the manuscript with a retired Acadia University professor. “It’s turning out much longer than I thought, but I find it very well written and quite interesting.”
Norris was “very attached to the Slocan Valley and very much loved by so many people around here,” he adds. “With his life he certainly added a lot to people’s understanding of the area.”
Norris died at home on January 11. A memorial service is planned for May 29 at the Silverton Memorial Hall.