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Originally published Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 7:04 PM

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Book review

'The Grace of Silence': Michele Norris' memoir of unearthing family secrets

Michele Norris' "The Grace of Silence" is the NPR host's memoir of how she learned the long-buried secrets of her family's involvement in momentous historical events. Norris discusses her book Monday, Oct. 4, at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Michele Norris

The author of "The Grace of Silence" will discuss her book in conversation with Lynne Varner at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Town Hall Seattle. Presented by the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas, with Elliott Bay Book Company and KUOW 94.9-FM. Tickets are $10 at www.brownpapertickets.com or 800-838-3006. Visit www.cdforum.org for more information.

How well do we know the people who raised us? What value is there in unlocking their secrets?

Those questions lie at the heart of "The Grace of Silence," (Pantheon Books, 185 pp., $24.95) an exquisite memoir by Michele Norris.

Co-host of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," Norris got her idea for her book from an NPR project on hidden conversations about race in the wake of Barack Obama's historic ascension to the White House. Listening to Americans voice their biases, hopes and insecurities about race led Norris to tune in to the stories of her family.

She got an earful.

Among the revelations: Norris' grandmother, who received mayoral citations and keys to the city for her volunteer work, traveled the country as a real-life Aunt Jemima for Quaker Oats in the late-1940s and early-1950s. As she ponders her grandmother's choices, Norris' voice is as soothingly probing on paper as it is on air. Her parents, Belvin and Betty, also harbor secrets — some that play minor roles in civil-rights history.

Norris is an award-winning journalist and former correspondent for ABC News, the Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune. Full disclosure: I knew Norris when we both worked for The Washington Post in the late-1980s and early '90s. We have not kept in touch.

In the annals of African-American history, space ought to be made for "The Grace of Silence" and its authoritative grasp of memoir and history.

This is Norris' family's story, but readers are right to view it as an American saga during a historical turning point: the migration of nearly 6 million African Americans from the racial segregation of the South to the northern, eastern and western points of the United States. For reading closer to home, the massive influx of Southern blacks into Seattle during World War II is documented in "In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990," by Quintard Taylor, a University of Washington professor and historian.

Norris' effort is more circumscribed, tracing her father's ascent into manhood and his departure from Birmingham, Ala., for Minneapolis. Norris' voice shifts uncomfortably from intimate family accounts to objective reporter when she writes about the racial turmoil in Birmingham, the violent police force led by the city's police chief, Bull Connor, and the Feb. 7, 1946, day when her father's biggest secret occurred.

After the move north, despite Minneapolis' reputation for racial tolerance, white families rush to put up for-sale signs when Belvin and his wife, Betty, move to the city's far South Side.

If anything is missing from this rich account of family history, it is how Norris' family's experiences shaped her own views about race. Norris acknowledges the weight of her parents' silence but goes no further in describing the effect of the burden. Norris may be adhering to the journalistic credo to stay out of the story.

Fine. Reading about Norris' gentle searching for answers made me want to counsel her to take Rilke's advice and simply "live the questions now." The answers will come. In turn, we should heed the author's warning that our families may "take their tales to their graves if you don't invite them to share their stories and wisdom."

"Tell me more about yourself," Norris advises, ought to be just the start.

Lynne Varner is a Seattle Times editorial writer.

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