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Michele Norris
The Grace of Silence
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2010

Pantheon / Random House
USA Trade Hardcover, First Edition
ISBN 978-0-307-37876-7
Publication Date: 09-21-2010
189 pages, $24.95
Date Reviewed: 11-19-2010

Index:  Non-Fiction  Mystery

Writing for radio requires a level of discipline that is far beyond that of the print-only world. A major piece of writing for a newspaper or magazine might run 2,000 to 3,000 words and even then seem pretty short. A major piece of writing for the radio might run 200 to 300 words — and even then, it is going to seem long.

Michele Norris makes the most of the discipline she learned in her years at NPR in her debut book 'The Grace of Silence.' Norris originally thought it would be a book of essays about race, based on her work at NPR. But it quickly changed when she decided she should start asking questions of her own family. Those questions broke a silence she had not known to exist. 'The Grace of Silence' starts as a memoir, but quickly moves beyond any boundaries as Norris finds a mystery in her family's history that leads to an examination of our history. The story that unfolds is compelling, entertainingly well-written, and superbly crafted, with an emotional heft that is honest and raw.

Norris embraces the brevity of radio writing with a skill that makes her a great storyteller in prose. We meet her father near the end of his life and then, in a series of telescoping conversations and investigations, move back through Norris' life and her parents' lives to find out what happened, and why. It is a story that, were it not so well written, might be difficult to read. As a nation, we're still close to the bone with regards to race and racism. Our ugly past is a lot closer and a lot uglier than you might hope to believe. But hope and belief work in our favor as well. Norris effectively uses both to sometimes shock and sometimes honestly, and without effort, uplift the reader. Being uplifted is a unique sensation. It is often attempted and rarely succeeds. Norris succeeds because she does not try.

There's a lot of history, both of Norris' family, and of the US in this book. But often-startling stories and events are rendered in prose that is precise and to the point. Norris is never too economical here; you never get the feeling that any scene is a sketch, and that's the result of skill so finely honed that it does not tip its hand. The book is a pleasure to read. Even the most personal family scenes are rendered with an even reportorial hand.

What is most impressive — in retrospect, when you have run through Norris' page-turning examination of a family and even a national mystery — is the skill with which she's put together the story. She keeps jumping back in time, then moving forward in a manner that allows the reader to put together the bigger and smaller pictures simultaneously. While the book is couched as a memoir and has all the pieces, it often reads like a true-crime or pocket history. It's utterly compelling and very crafty in construction.

Of course, Norris learns quite a bit about the state of race relations in America in solving her own family mystery, and as she learns, we as readers experience her own immersion. She puts us in her shoes, and that proves to be a great place to be. She's smart, tenacious and empathetic. This book may not offer all the answers, but it certainly gets readers started asking the right questions.

'The Grace of Silence' is not at all what you might expect it to be. Norris has used her skills as a writer for radio to explore in prose the minds of an entire nation and the depths of her own family history. When you open up 'The Grace of Silence,' abandon your expectations. You'll find a powerful mystery, unknown history, and then, in the moment when you finish — a willingness to embrace the silence that follows. To listen.

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