"For the conquest to be justified, it was necessary to think of the Indians as 'savages'." -- Norman Newton

Norman Newton was born in Vancouver in 1929. He died on December 27, 2011.

As a young man eager to write, he corresponded with Earle Birney and became part of Birney's Author's Anonymous circle that included Robert Harlow, Norm Klenman, Ernest Perrault, Ben Maartman and Hilda Thomas--among others. Newton first met Malcolm Lowry at Earle Birney's shack in Deep Cove known as 'Hangover House'. Birney had been so impressed by Lowry and his former Hollywood starlet wife Margerie that he had rented his own place in Lowry's vicinity. Here Birney's students met, mingled and drank. "He [Lowry] was a very dramatic person in my presence," Newton told biographer Elspeth Cameron, "always performing. He had something of the style of the old Shakespearian actor... His singing was quite unmusical, and he accompanied himself with a furious a rattly strumming on the ukelele which would have caused embarrassment at a YMCA picnic."

Norman Newton worked for many years as an actor, radio playwright and CBC radio producer in Vancouver, during which time he became familiar with CBC announcer Bill Reid. This friendship led him towards his interest in the Haida. "Reid is a laconic man," he once wrote, "usually amiable and entertaining, but sometimes scarifyingly direct in his rejection of importunate bores and fools." Initially, as a young man, Newton worked at a variety of jobs, including a stint as a deckhand on a tugboat and a job as a mess-boy on a freighter between Ireland and Canada, prior to being hired by the BBC in London during the 1950s.

Published in England, Newton's first historical novel about Mexico, The House of Gods (1961), recalls Toltec culture from the 15th century. His second novel set in Mexico, The One True Man, incorporates Mayan and Aztec stories to theorize that Phoenicians could have established colonies in North America centuries prior to the birth of Christ.

Newton's non-fiction book, Thomas Gage in Spanish America (1969), recalls the Englishman who went to Spain in 1612 and became a Dominican priest. He lived in Central America as a missionary from 1625 to 1637. When Gage returned to Europe, he renounced Roman Catholicism and became an Anglican clergyman in England, then served as chaplain on an expedition to the West Indies in 1654. Gage died in Jamaica. In his 1648 book called English-American: His Travail by Sea and Land; or, A New Survey of the West Indies, Thomas Gage described the wealth and relatively defenseless condition of the Spanish possessions in the Americas.

Released one year prior to Alan Fry's breakthrough novel about B.C. Indian reserves, How A People Die, Norman Newton's third novel, The Big Stuffed Hand of Friendship (1969), provides a credible and occasionally ribald portrait of a coastal B.C. town and its often strained relations between Aboriginals and whites. Newton later produced a non-fiction book, Fire in the Raven's Nest: The Haida of British Columbia (1973) that is an amalgam of interviews, oral narratives, myths and documentary materials, with some direct input from Haida artist Bill Reid, a broadcasting colleague at the CBC. One section recalls how smallpox destroyed the traditional culture on the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Newton also wrote many plays for radio and the stage, two books of poetry, opera libretti and musical scores for various media. He once wrote, "From the time I began to write my life has been dominated by the attempt to find new forms of narrative and dramatic poetry. My plays have thus been written wholly or partly in verse. My book-length fictions, written in prose metre rather than prose as normally understood, are formed in the tradition of narrative verse."

Some of Newton's main plays are The Death of the Hawk (CBC radio, 1951), The Rehearsal (Ottawa Little Theatre, Dominion Drama Festival, 1954), The Abdication (Originals Only, New York, 1955; CBC radio, 1966; revised and retitled The Antiquarian), The Lion and the Unicorn (University Alumnae Dramatic Club, Toronto, 1958; revised and retitled The Choice of Hercules), The Misanthrope (CBC radio, Molière translation, 1971) and King Orpheus (CBC radio, 1971).

He retired to Gabriola Island.


The House of Gods (London: Peter Owen, 1961).
The One True Man (London: Peter Owen, 1963).
Thomas Gage in Spanish America (London: Faber & Faber, 1969).
The Big Stuffed Hand of Friendship (London: Peter Owen; Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1969).
Fire in the Raven's Nest: The Haida of British Columbia (Toronto: New Press, 1973).

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2011] "Fiction" "QCI" "Mexico" "Lowry" "First Nations"