A review of Steal the North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Steal the North
by Heather Brittain Bergstrom
Viking
2014, ISBN 978-0-670-78618-3

Heather Brittain Bergstrom’s novel is outstanding for its evocation of place. In a promotional interview, she notes that she was born and raised in Moses Lake, Washington, between two large Indian reservations, the Colville and the Yakama. Now living in northern California, she sometimes longs for the Pacific Northwest’s rugged, open landscapes, cowboys, Indians, wind, sage, large rivers, dams, and miles of “nothingness.”

Part of the novel also takes place in sophisticated, urban California. Steal the North opens in Sacramento, where sixteen year old Emmy lives with her single mother, Kate, who has a Master’s degree in English, pieces together a living teaching day and evening classes at three junior colleges in the area.  Kate fled the state of Washington at nineteen with infant Emmy and has struggled hard for her education and freedom in a multicultural, open-minded milieu. Despite her financial constraints, she pays for Emmy to attend an expensive “artsy” private school, in the hope that she will be accepted into the University of California at Berkeley on scholarships.

Having built a new life for herself and her child, Kate is fiercely independent. Unable to believe her good fortune in having the love of Spencer, a prospering builder, she has refused his proposal of marriage and keeps him at more of a distance than he would like. Emmy, in need of a father-figure, likes Spencer. Kate has told her that the “most important part” of her natural father died the day she was born, because he didn’t claim her.

In the summer, when Kate picks up additional teaching jobs, Emmy faces a solitary, studious school break in their apartment above a shop that sells “seaweed powders, mood mists, Buddha statues and even menstruation journals.”  Her secret romance with her wealthy classmate, Connor, seems doomed because he is so privileged. Then Kate, comes home one evening with news that changes everything.

“You’re going to hate me…before tonight is over with,” she says. “I have a sister in Washington. My little sister found me.”

Kate and her sister Bethany (like the author) were raised in Moses Lake, Washington, in a strict fundamentalist sect in which education, even in the form of library use, was discouraged. Girls and women were required to wear long hair and long dresses. Faith healing was valued over medical science. The sisters are scarred by the memory of their mother, a week before her death from cancer, being dipped by their father and other church people in a mud lake alleged to have healing powers.

At a church camp, Kate met Jamie, a rich farmer’s son bound for agricultural college. When she got pregnant, he dumped her. Knowing that no help would be forthcoming from their strict religious father, Bethany and her boyfriend Matt got married as teenagers, settled down in a house trailer, and took Kate in. Bethany cared for baby Emmy while Matt worked for an irrigation company. Kate waitressed at a truck stop and exchanged favours for money. When Bethany found out, she went to their father, demanded the money left to them by their mother’s family, and gave her share to Kate so she could leave Washington for a more promising future.

It is a shock to Emmy to learn that her aunt wants her to visit. Bethany has tried repeatedly to bear a child but has suffered a series of miscarriages. Pregnant again, she wants Emmy to take part in a laying-on-of-hands ceremony, because her pastor thinks the participation of a virgin, who is a relative, may have a positive effect. Kate wants Emmy to go, to make amends for her own failure to maintain contact with Bethany.

Emmy’s summer in Washington changes her life forever because she meets the love of her life. Readers who believe that young love conquers all will be delighted with Steal the North, but more cynical ones such as myself will raise an eyebrow.  Although Emmy compares herself to Jane Austen’s heroine, Anne Elliott, in Persuasion, Anne is mature, in her late twenties, when she makes her feelings known to her one true love, whom she refused eight years earlier. In contrast, Emmy is just eighteen when she walks off a campus with her inamorato. The promise of a happily-ever-after future seems naive.

Bergstrom’s characters are multi-faceted and unusual, particularly Kate, who has great initiative and tenacity. For Kate, life in rural and small town Washington meant “poverty, the church and rednecks”. Her rise from badly educated waitress to college teacher seems praiseworthy, and her concern for Emmy seems genuine and normal, yet she is portrayed negatively as the novel goes on. At one point, a youth with a problematic family life berates her for raising Emmy without close kin. I was disappointed in the way Kate became almost the villain of the novel.

Bergstrom is skilled in differentiating between the various characters who take turns telling the story.  Spencer, for instance, sounds different from Emmy. Yet there is a bit too much “telling” rather than “showing” as the novel goes on.

Another positive element is Bergstrom’s depiction of First Nations people as fully rounded human beings with high aspirations. In her Viking Press interview she speaks of the “extreme prejudice” against Indians when she was growing up in rural Washington. She compares the spiritualities of aboriginal and mainstream cultures when she compares native American  healing ceremonies with the church-organized one in which Emmmy’s aunt participates.

The settings of Steal the North, however, are the element that will capture an audience. Readers want to escape suburban malls and housing developments for wide open spaces. In showing us rural Washington, Bergstrom captures hinterland communities everywhere. I enjoyed the pulsing, ever-changing atmosphere of Berkeley too.

Ruth Latta’s novel, The Songcatcher and Me (Ottawa, Baico, 2013, baico@bellnet.ca) takes place in rural Ontario, Canada in the 1950s.

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