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'North of Normal' chronicles unconventional upbringing in Canadian wilderness

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TORONTO - Cea Sunrise Person graced magazines, catalogues, print ads and TV commercials for nearly two decades as an international model — a stark contrast to childhood years spent living in the Canadian wilderness.

In her memoir, "North of Normal" (HarperCollins) Person chronicles her unconventional upbringing with her pot-growing, free-loving family dwelling in a teepee and living off the land. The book also reveals the challenges of life with her late mother Michelle as the duo left the family behind and Michelle pursued a string of topsy-turvy relationships.

The Vancouver-based author writes of her anti-establishment grandfather known as Papa Dick who decided to relocate the free-spirited family of hippies from California to Canada.

Eighteen months after Person's birth to her teen mom in 1969, her family relocated to a remote piece of land near a native reserve in northern Alberta. Until the age of five, Person and her mother lived with Papa Dick, her grandmother and aunts in Kootenay Plains and Morley, Alta., hunting and gathering their food and creating a stove dubbed the Guzzler fashioned out of an old barrel.

"I had dresses made from grandmother would sew my moccasins from leather she'd tanned herself," recalled Person in an interview, noting that the rest of her clothing came from Salvation Army when her grandfather made occasional trips into town.

Person, 44, recalled an "amazing feeling of freedom" as a self-described nature child galloping in the meadow and fields. But exposure to more adult activities as a youngster also left lingering memories for Person which she candidly shares in her memoir.

"I felt so alone in my experiences because how can you tell your friend when you're 10 years old you've seen and heard sex happen in front of you 100 times?.. Or that your mom smokes pot every day or that your mom's boyfriend does mushrooms?

"Putting it out there made me feel a lot less alone. And it made me feel like I hope that I can connect with some people out there who may have had the same experiences."

Despite seeing the writing experience as both cathartic and therapeutic, she admits it was hard to write about her early teen years prior to starting modelling when she felt "rudderless."

"I wasn't the wilderness child anymore. I was terrified of my future because I didn't want to end up like my family. I didn't know what my escape route would be, but I desperately wanted a different life and I didn't know what it was going to be like."

Modelling helped to serve as an anchor, as Person worked full-time in the industry from age 13 to 30. While Person said she enjoyed the chance to travel to amazing locales, her memoir also illustrates the not-so-glamorous side of the business, like living in grungy apartments or seeing other girls battling bulimia.

Person credits her wilderness smarts and a resourcefulness and resilience built from childhood in being able to emerge relatively unscathed.

"It was a healthy escape for me. Even though the world of modelling it has its dark side, for me, it was a saviour. It gave me the independence that I needed."

While she often felt like an outsider growing up and found difficulty forging friendships, Person was able to form those connections with other models, many of whom she remains close with today.

"The thing with modelling is it seems to attract a lot of people who do feel like outsiders in their own life," she said. "You end up being in these environments where you're working for a few days with someone from Sweden, someone from Texas, someone from Australia and you form friendships very quickly and learn about each other's life stories very quickly, and then you sometimes never see each other again, or you see each other again in a year.

"It's a very tight bond that you get with these girls because we're in such an interesting, weird world together."

Now married with children aged two, four and eight, Person said it is important for her to share her childhood story with her kids when they get older. She also wants to ensure they're exposed to the realities of the larger world both through discussion and action, like taking them to feed the homeless in Vancouver's downtown.

"They want for nothing. But to me, I worry sometimes that because they don't have any real trauma or challenges in their life that they won't have the resiliency and the ability to be resourceful and solve problems the way I have," she said.

"I feel that it's my responsibility to make them feel safe and secure — they have every right to that — but they need to also understand that their life is their own making in a lot of ways, and they need to see what goes on around them."

— Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.



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