Steal the North: A Novel

by Heather Brittain Bergstrom

(Viking Adult, $27.95, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Heather Brittain Bergstrom hails from the Pacific Northwest – eastern Washington state, to be exact. Her family belonged to a fundamentalist Baptist church and she attended an unaccredited private school housed in a basement. Her background includes stints as a truckstop waitress and a teacher – talk about variety! Her writing career has brought her many awards for her short stories, including those from the Atlantic Monthly and Chicago Tribune, and one of her stories was named notable in the 2010 edition of “Best American Short Stories.”  “Steal the North” is her debut novel.

What is this book about?

This is a story of family, faith and fundamentalism. Teenage Emmy is sent by her single mother, Kate, from their home in Sacramento to live for a time with her aunt, Bethany, in Washington state. Kate had fled her rigidly religious family years ago when she became pregnant with Emmy and was vilified and shunned. But now her sister Bethany, who has been unable to have a child, reaches out to Kate, believing that if Emmy comes home and takes part in a faith healing ceremony, Beth will finally be able to bear a child. Emmy makes the trip, finds that she loves the town and also meets a Native American boy, Reuben. Their romance stirs up age-old cultural and family tensions, but the power of young love is strong.

Why you’ll like it:

This is a story of regular people caught up in unusual circumstances, and it raises issues of what happens when a family’s uncompromising faith runs smack into the need to love a member who has broken its rules. It’s also a story of sisters warily trying to rekindle a relationship and of young lovers whose desires and loyalties conflict with what is expected of them. All this adds up to a multi-layered love story with overtones of social issues, along with powerfully drawn characters, that engage the reader.

What others are saying:                                

Booklist’s starred review says: Bergstrom’s magnetic debut resonates on several levels, but first and foremost it is a poignant story of the love between two mismatched teens. Emmy’s mother, Kate, was abandoned by her high-school boyfriend before her daughter was born. Kate and her sister, Bethany, were raised in eastern Washington as members of a fundamentalist church. When Kate was condemned from the pulpit for being a “whore,” her father disowned her. Two years later, she boarded a bus with Emmy in tow, ending up in Sacramento and revealing her whereabouts to no one. Fifteen years later, Bethany finds Kate and asks her to send Emmy to Washington to help with her latest pregnancy, which follows several miscarriages. After the initial culture shock, Emmy grows to love not only her birthplace but also Reuben, the Native American boy who lives next door. Bergstrom skillfully builds suspense around what will happen when Emmy is due to return to Sacramento for her senior year, with Kate steering her toward U.C. Berkeley as Reuben is aiming for Washington State. The reader becomes involved in this thoroughly engaging first novel’s denouement because of how perceptively Bergstrom has drawn her central characters.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Award-winning short story author Bergstrom makes a strong debut with her first novel. Emmy Nolan, a shy teenager brought up by a tough single mother in Sacramento, Calif., doesn’t even know she has living relatives until her aunt tracks her mother down and begs for Emmy to attend a faith-healing ceremony—the aunt’s last chance, she believes, to carry a child to term after countless miscarriages. Emmy is shocked to discover that her mother was raised in a fundamentalist church and shunned by family and community after giving birth to Emmy while she was in high school. Once she arrives at her aunt’s home in eastern Washington State, Emmy feels like a fraud (her aunt thinks she’s both a Christian and a virgin; Emmy is neither), but grows to love her aunt and uncle, as well as Reuben, the Native American teenager next door. The book is far more than a story of love or belief, and its layers are peeled away as the narrative progresses. Chapters are written from the perspectives of several different characters (at times it feels like there are too many different points of view), often in second person, and the choice of present tense works. Emmy’s self-involvement makes it difficult, at times, to remain completely in her corner. Reuben is by far the most charismatic character in the book. But Bergstrom takes the reader so deeply into the characters that it’s easy to forgive the few things that don’t work, because much of the book works so well.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Young love springs up in a place where older hearts were bruised, in Bergstrom’s debut saga. Raised motherless under the influence of a fundamentalist Baptist church in eastern Washington state, sisters Kate and Bethany Nolan grew up close, and when Kate needed help after a teenage love affair left her pregnant and alone, condemned from the pulpit and prostituting herself at a local truck stop, Bethany helped her and her baby, Emmy, leave for a new life in California. Now, 16 years later, Kate asks Emmy to return to Bethany, who is childless after many miscarriages, to take part in a healing ceremony to bless her latest pregnancy. Shy, relocated to relatives she never knew existed, Emmy finds herself in a rural community where she feels a sense of belonging and is befriended by Reuben, a Native American boy. Narrated, sometimes distractingly, from multiple perspectives, the novel considers several relationships—Bethany’s solid marriage, tested by her religious beliefs and yearning for children; Kate’s struggle to accept a permanent relationship; Emmy’s discovery of mutuality with Reuben. Bergstrom’s emphasis on sentiment and issues lends a downbeat note to the storytelling, which is intensified when tragedy strikes and only partly dissipates by the drawn-out but happy conclusion. A carefully crafted family drama that dwells more on the difficult journey than the glad arrival.”

When is it available?

It’s waiting for you at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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