By Rebecca Rasmussen

(Knopf Doubleday, $25.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Rebecca Rasmussen first garnered wide attention with her novel The Bird Sisters, and she also has been published in (or has won prizes from) such journals as  TriQuarterly, Narrative Magazine, Glimmer Train and The Mid-American Review. A Midwesterner by birth, she has lived in eight states and now makes her home in Los Angeles with her family, where she teaches English part-time at UCLA.

What is this book about?

This is a novel about family, and how strong the impulse to share a heritage can be. Opening in the late 1930s, when Eveline, a naive but game young woman, follows her new husband Emil, a taxidermist, to a beautiful and abundant but primitive spot in the forests of  Minnesota, it goes on to chronicle her life and that of her children: Hux, son of Emil, and Naamah, the child of a rapist who strikes when Emil returns for a time to Germany. Eveline makes the heartrending decision to give this child of violence to an orphanage, a place that proves to be cruel beyond measure. Later, as an adult, goodhearted Hux, who knows about his hidden sister, finds her and brings her home, but taming Naamah is far from easy or assured. This is a novel that asks whether the bonds of family can bind up devastating emotional wounds.

Why you’ll like it:

While this book has received somewhat mixed reviews, Evergreen has several intriguing points of entry: a story of survival in the wilderness that takes place in a time less than 100 years ago that might as well be many centuries past; and a story of emotional trauma in which good people make inadvertently bad decisions and bad people strike without conscience or caring. It is also a novel in which the setting deeply affects the characters and the plot. Here is what Rebecca Rasmussen told an Amazon interviewer about the book:

“As a person who has lived in eight different states so far in my life, I’ve had the fortunate experience of witnessing how place changes people. In Massachusetts, I used to snowshoe down my street. I was moodier then. After a long winter, there was nothing more enlivening than seeing the first magnolia blossoms in the spring. In Los Angeles, I’m a hundred feet from the 405. I’m so close I can give a traffic report. But the sun is always shining and the winds are always warm. I’m softer here. Less alone.

In Evergreen, the changes the characters go through are more pronounced than mine, perhaps because there are no modern conveniences to soften the transition when they move from an established town to the wilds of northern Minnesota in 1938. Electricity changes people. Running water. But so do swiftly moving rivers and old growth forests, night skies unmarred by city lights, industry. To my mind, this novel couldn’t take place anywhere else in the world but Evergreen.”

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Evergreen is a small pocket of habitable forestland in rural Minnesota, where, in 1938, giddy newlyweds Eveline and Emil start a life together. Their riverside cabin is stubbornly removed from the nearest town of Yellow Falls, with its electricity and grocery stores. Soon a baby is on the way, and their marriage unfolds, almost too sweetly. But Rasmussen has a knack for destabilizing her characters as soon as she’s got them settled. Emil heads home to his native Germany, and his father’s deathbed, with World War II on the horizon. Eveline, nursing an infant, refuses to stay with her parents but, instead, emulates Lulu, her neighbor across the river, who hunts, curses, and stomps around in a dusty coat of animal pelts. Eveline learns empowering survival skills, but they do little to protect her from a stranger who appears one night and rapes her, leaving her pregnant. Mothers, daughters, and granddaughters struggle with abandonment, physical violation, and illness in this story. Rasmussen does not shy away from evil characters—rapists, child abusers—but her most unnerving character is Eveline’s son, Hux. Without an ill-intentioned bone in his body, he makes the women look comparatively unhinged and, at times, selfish. Evergreen is serene, but not safe. If Rasmussen’s characters contained such subtleties and contradictions, the novel would be more realistic. And yet, Rasumssen makes her point about the indelibility of trauma and the impossibility of avoiding heartbreak.”

Booklist says: “Rasmussen has been steadily crafting a unique brand of midwestern literature that combines offbeat characters and timeless rhythms reminiscent of folk tales with touching story lines about the pain and hard-won joys of real life. As with her debut, The Bird Sisters (2011), in her new book, she shows her strong affection for the picturesque rural settings of yesteryear. In 1938, Eveline Sturm joins her German-born husband, Emil, in the northern Minnesota backwoods. Their isolated cabin is beyond rustic, and her only reading material is Emil’s taxidermy manuals, yet she decides to remain alone with their baby son, Hux, when Emil returns to Germany to care for his father. Years later, Eveline’s daughter, Naamah, the product of a traumatic rape, grows up amid cruelty in a Catholic orphanage. After reuniting with his half sister as an adult, Hux tries to help the beautiful, damaged Naamah recapture her lost childhood. In this character-driven saga of friendship and the thorny bonds of family, Rasmussen writes with wisdom and compassion about the people and places that shape us, for better and worse.”

“A fairy tale-like chronicle of how one moment’s pain can echo through generations . . . Rasmussen was born and raised in the Midwest, and her descriptions of the Minnesota wilderness are poetic in their spare beauty. Nature has an almost mystical draw for the characters in Evergreen, most of whom look to it as a refuge rather than something to conquer . . . With its quiet beauty, deep compassion and strong emotional pull, Evergreen cements Rasmussen’s reputation as one of our most talented new writers,” says Bookpage.

“Evergreen is set in the austere landscape of northern Minnesota, where the forests and lakes have a beauty that reveals itself only gradually, and where that beauty is matched by the twin dangers of isolation and cold . . . a stark book, with flashes of human kindness held in balance by moments, or years, of scarring violence . . . Rasmussen doesn’t shy from depicting villainy: Two of her characters are sociopaths, and their impact on the others careens through the years. At the same time, and without sentimentality, she allows for the healing power of time and nature.” Says The Columbus Dispatch.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A malign stranger’s visit to a remote Minnesota log cabin in the 1930s will cast long shadows over a family in a fatalistic second novel. After her quirky debut, Rasmussen (The Bird Sisters, 2011) returns to the subject of siblings, this time via a fairy tale–flavored three-generation family portrait set in a forest wilderness. Evergreen is the tiny riverside community to which Eveline LeMay travels in 1938 to join her new husband, German immigrant and taxidermist Emil. Arriving dreamily in a rudderless boat, Eveline disembarks into a life of rural simplicity and hard labor, wrapped in the sweetness of a loving marriage. Soon after a son, Hux, is born, however, Emil is called back to Germany, to his father’s deathbed. The year being 1939, his return to Eveline will not be problem-free. Opting to stay on the land instead of returning to her own parents during Emil’s absence, Eveline discovers strength and local friendship but also suffers a traumatic rape which leads to the birth of a daughter, Naamah, whom Eveline reluctantly decides to abandon at the door of Hopewell, a Catholic orphanage. Naamah’s cruel treatment at the hands of Sister Cordelia, the crazed nun in charge at Hopewell, leaves ineradicable scars on the child’s psyche; although she escapes at age 14, her behavior—even after Hux finds and rescues her, years later—is proof of deep-rooted damage. Rasmussen’s devoted storytelling lends grace to the proceedings, but there’s a sense of sketchiness, both in the story and the cast of one-note characters whose problems are largely wiped away in an overwhelmingly sweet conclusion. The delicate inventiveness that marked this author’s first novel is less apparent in her sentimental second.

When is it available?

Evergreen is on the shelves at the Mark Twain branch of the Hartford Public Library.

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