Chicagoland

Mount Carmel alum writes a ‘fictionalized memoir’ of his days at the school

By Chicago Catholic
July 17, 2017

Larry Norris was a freshman at Mount Carmel High School in 1967-1968, a year that was pivotal in Chicago’s history. He recalls that history 50 years later in “The Brown and White” (2016, Sporting Chance Press), a “fictionalized memoir,” seen through the eyes of Collin Callaghan, a freshman at what Norris calls St. Mary’s College Prep. But the school, and, indeed, the South Side neighborhoods that the eponymous “Brown and White” school bus traverses, are clearly rooted in Norris’ experiences as an adolescent in an unsettled time.

Norris answered questions about his book by email for Chicago Catholic.

Chicago Catholic: You call “The Brown and White” a “fictionalized memoir” and you changed the names of not only people, but also the high school and other Chicago landmarks. Why did you want to make some of it fictional instead of writing a straight memoir, and how much did you change?

Larry Norris: I wanted to write a book like John Powers’ “Last Catholic in America” and “Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up” in that the people who are characters can recognize themselves, but it would be up to them. I also wanted the book to be of interest to a wide audience.

From my publishing experience, books are more powerful when they are organic -- when each reader brings into the mix his or her own experiences as the book is being read. When I read Powers myself, I thought about our Catholic culture and some of the things were so funny, yet so true. It was post Vatican II and things were a bit wobbly.

It also seemed easier to think about Power’s fictitious Seven Holy Hills and not to get hung up on the fact that his experience was at St. Christina and Brother Rice. Sometimes when you write about a particular school, that is where your market begins and ends. I love my school, Mount Carmel, but I am hoping the book works for everyone.

Fiction also allows you to round out the edges. It might also make it easier if I get a call from Hollywood and they want to make a movie from it.

 

Chicago Catholic: You said you’ve been writing this book for 40 years. Why did it take so long for the story to mature? What perspective do you have now that you didn’t have when you started to think about it?

Norris: I was talking to a priest that I knew 40 years ago and he said anyone can make fun of things in writing. I took that to heart and I wanted my book to be a positive book -- although I wanted to keep it real and be funny.

I wrote the various episodes of the book over many years. I was in no hurry; the world had four books by John Powers and several more on Catholic culture. Then, about 20 years ago, I had to take another pass at the entire book because I lost the file.

I went back and spent more time examining the times to describe the setting. I wanted to make sure that the book was about my experience and I wasn't trying to extend too far beyond that. In high school and college, I read a half-dozen books about the black experience. I didn't want to pretend I was the second coming of James Baldwin. So I tried to tell my story, a white boy’s story.

 

Chicago Catholic: The year you write about – 1967-1968 – was a tumultuous time for Chicago, and much has happened since. How do you think that time changed the city? How did it change Mount Carmel High School, in the near and long terms?

Norris: That's a big question. I had some idea of how the city was changed, but I was very young when that happened. So I guess you could say that much of what I describe was symptoms, not cause and effect.

I wrote about a few experiences that we had and focused on family and teachers. The year's events served as the backdrop, but I kept the book focused a personal level -- not a treatise on the times.

I hope readers will especially enjoy the family stories -- I think that's the strongest part of the book. I have both male and female fans of the book and that makes me feel good.

Mount Carmel survived and not only that, it was able to continue its mission to graduate one class after another of "Men of Carmel." Huge improvements have been made with gifts by generous alumni and the school now has a beautiful campus.

It’s blocks away from the site of the future Obama library. The student body is an ethnic alchemy -- students now will get an even better education. The future looks bright. People see Carmel as an athlete’s school, but it is certainly much more than that.

 

Chicago Catholic: The book covers not only a time of great social change, but also the freshman year of high school – nearly always a stormy time – for your protagonist. How did the turbulence of the time affect you as you were growing up? How did your growing up change your understanding of the times you lived through?

Norris: I kept the book light and wanted to focus on the fact that we almost all survive tough times and we do so with our family, faith, friends and help from others like teachers. In high school, there is also a tendency of not taking things too seriously. Personally, I think the 1960s left many of us shaking our heads and trying to come to some kind of closure, but I am not sure we will see it.

 

Chicago Catholic: The metaphor of the bus – “the Brown and White” – runs through the pages until, at the end, it stops, replaced without a word. What came to an end for you that year?

Norris: The story of the first year ended with my friends stopping by my house and sitting on the front steps with my parents. The Brown and White is a pervasive metaphor: the bus, the students, school colors, etc. At the end of the last chapter, we are taking a rest after the brown and white boot camp. We saw everything in brown and white.

The epilogue is a critical part of the book's message in that it talks about teachers that gave us everything they had.

"The Brown and White" is available on amazon.com.

 

 

 

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