Book Review – Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad

  • Crazy for The Storm – A Memoir of Survival
  • by Norman Ollestad
  • Publisher – HarperCollins
  • Copyright 2009
  • 272 pages

Rating – 8/10

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Summary – In February 1979 a small plane crashed in California’s San Gabriel mountains. The three adults on board died, leaving eleven-year old Norman Ollestad, Jr. To attempt to find his way down the mountain in a blizzard. Crazy for the Storm is Ollestad’s account of that crash and of his life with his adventurer father, Norman, Sr. It’s an amazing book and well worth the reader’s time.

Review – “Dysfunction memoirs” (such as Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Kent Walker’s Son of a Grifter) have become an established corner of the publishing world. In this vein, Norman Ollestad’s Crazy for the Storm recounts his childhood with his adrenaline-addicted father. But, unlike many of these authors, Ollestad finds much to admire in his unconventional upbringing.

Green Grass & High Tides – A Lot to Like

It’s been said that the 1960s laid the groundwork for the changes in U.S. Society, but that the 1970s were when the country digested those changes, started to make sense of them. Born in 1967,  Normal Ollestad, Jr., was on the front lines of those changes. His charismatic father, Norman, Sr., had published a scathing tell-all memoir of his time as an FBI agent. Norman, Sr. Then practiced law in and settled into a bohemian existence in Topanga Beach, California.

At the beginning of the book, Norman’s parents have split up, and are living in separate homes in Topanga Beach. Crazy for the Storm provides a vivid description of 1970s Topanga’s bohemian lifestyle; of his parents’ failed relationship Norman, Jr. Writes –

It wasn’t that abnormal really – a lot of people in Topanga Beach who were married were kissing other people, fighting with their new boyfriends or girlfriends, and suddenly moving into other houses (p. 7)

The core of the book focuses on the relationship between the Normans –  Jr. & Sr. Eventually, the reader learns that Norman, Sr. Had been a child actor and had missed many boyhood activities when he was forced to attend auditions and work. As an adult, Norman, Sr.’s life is a sort of delayed adolescence, as he focuses his energies on one daredevil pursuit after another.

Norman, Sr. Continually pushed Norman, Jr. Into daredevil pursuits (such as skiing and surfing), even though Norman, Jr. Dislikes the risks involved in each. In one scene, Norman, Jr. Conquers a difficult ski slope; he than expounds upon his father’s rough magic –

I caught myself dreaming about super light Alta powder for a second, then turned away to head any glimmer from him. sometimes I detested his charisma, that way it trampled everything and always won out. Yet even then I wanted to be like him (p. 63).

In the Trough – Negatives

In his narrative, Ollestad cuts back and forth. Typically, one chapter recounts some of the events from the 1979 plane crash. The next recounts Norman Jr.’s life leading up to the crash. Then the third chapter returns to the 1979 crash. This isn’t a bad plan, but I don’t think that Ollestad gets it quite right. The main interest in the story is the Ollestad family; the crash shows the good and the bad in Norman, Sr.’s approach to life. In Crazy for the Storm, Norman, Jr. Spends a bit too much time on the details of the crash, omitting additional background on his family that would have been more interesting.

In this vein, Crazy for the Storm leaves you with too many loose ends @ the book’s close. Readers learn a lot about Norman’s mother and stepfather, but we never hear anything about what happened to them – or so many others – at the end of the book. 2-3 pages to tie up the loose ends would have left readers more satisfied with Crazy for the Storm.

Finally, Ollestad presents the story by re-creating dialogue from long ago. This technique isn’t my favorite, because I can’t forget that – even if Ollestad accurately recounts details – I cannot forget that the dialogue is invented. (Ollestad lost some credibility with me when he recounted riding around Los Angeles in 1979-80 while listening to Madonna (page 230); that never happened – Madonna had no recording contract @ the time).

Sunset on the Water – Final Thoughts

The best thing about Crazy for the Storm is that it’s a page turner. I finished it in just over 24 hours. While you will be entertained, Ollestad leaves you with no easy answers. It’s clear that he is ambivalent about his father, still trying to come to grips with him all these years later.

Crazy for the Storm is a terrific, true tale of a bygone era that can be as complex and as ambiguous as life itself. Don’t miss it.

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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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