“Steal the North” by Heather Brittain Bergstrom (Viking, 315 pages, $27.95)
Sixteen-year-old Emmy Nolan has lived a protected life in California believing her mother, Kate, to be her only relative. So she is shocked when her mother admits to having a sister, Beth, who is now asking for Emmy’s help. Kate and Beth grew up in a rigid, cult-like church that rejected modern medicine and also rejected Kate when she had a child out of wedlock. Kate eventually left with baby Emmy and cut off all communication with her family, even her beloved sister Beth, who had already formed an attachment to Emmy.
After suffering many miscarriages, Beth is pregnant again and believes this to be her last chance to have a child. At the counsel of her pastor, Beth is planning to participate in a faith healing ceremony in which a virgin will lay hands on her belly to heal her womb and help her carry the baby to full term. Aunt Beth wants those hands to be Emmy’s. As if this isn’t shocking enough, Emmy is stunned to also learn that her father is not dead, as her mother has always told her, but is living in Eastern Washington near Aunt Beth. Emmy determines to grant her aunt’s wishes, go to Washington, find out the truth about her mother’s past, and locate her father.
Full of conflict, family revelations and painful romance, the story weaves its way through Emmy’s summer of discovery in the place she was born but is just now beginning to know. Love of the land is a dominant theme and is reflected most clearly through the eyes of Emmy’s new friend Reuben, a Native American encumbered with plenty of baggage of his own. Emmy and Reuben’s burgeoning relationship changes them both but is tested severely when tragedy strikes.
Each chapter of Heather Brittain Bergstrom’s debut novel is narrated by one of the various characters in the book, providing different points of view as the story unfolds. The concept of home is integral to the story, and the importance of the spiritual aspect of home is played out in the lives of the different characters. A rough drawing labeled “Reuben’s Map” shows locations mentioned throughout the story and corresponds to actual named places in Eastern Washington. This includes the Colville Reservation, home to much of Reuben’s family. Also on the map is Grand Coulee Dam, the bane of Native Americans in the region due to its disruption of ancient patterns of nature. The cultural, environmental and spiritual importance of the free-flowing Columbia was taken from Native Americans when the Grand Coulee and other dams were constructed. Reuben feels the loss of his spiritual home keenly, and his life goal is to discover a way to save the salmon, once so important to his ancestors and now in fatal decline largely due to the dams and resultant environmental changes.
Emmy, meanwhile, is exploring the depths of her family history and trying to resolve how she can stay in Washington, where she now feels her home to be.
“Steal the North” is a coming-of-age story, and as such, drama abounds. While the author introduces deep social issues, it is the sensational aspects of the plot (e.g., sexual promiscuity) that are showcased. No surprise there; it is a novel after all, but one that relies too heavily on a tiresome and distracting assault of profanity from almost all the characters. Like too much salt in a dish that could have been interestingly complex and full of flavor, this book may leave the reader with a taste that is, well, just salty.