Reviewed by Jenny Fiore (Army, Special Forces)
Heather Brittain Bergstrom’s debut novel, Steal the North, bridges two contrasting locales from the author’s own life—rural eastern Washington and urban northern California. It’s rich with setting, beautifully and authentically described. It also has some nice wordsmithing, plenty of likeable characters, and just enough drama to keep readers plugging along.
Emmy is a bright but cloistered 15-year-old living in a bohemian apartment with her single mom in Sacramento when she learns that she has more family than just her mom. Why the dark secret? You’ll quickly find out, for Bergstrom has not written a suspense thriller or mystery here. It’s a love story, set into motion when Emmy is summoned for an unlikely journey north to participate in a healing ceremony for the aunt she never knew she had. Early on, readers learn that Emmy’s mother had 15 years earlier been outcast by the church conducting said healing ceremony—for being pregnant out of wedlock. She fled. She disconnected. And she never looked back, until now.
To enjoy the story, readers will at times have to suspend disbelief: Several of the main players’ actions seem unnecessarily extreme or incongruent with the rest of their character. Think fundamentalist Christian child turned pregnant teenager turned truck-stop hooker turned college professor. You’ll be fine if you can stop asking questions like why has this seemingly smart, kind, and hardworking couple been living in the same trailer park for 15 years and only just begun talking to their next-door neighbors? And hopefully you can, because it’s all worth it to meet Reuben Tonasket, the teenager whose aunt lives in that same trailer park. In Reuben we meet the 21st-century American Indian teenager. Bergstrom’s treatment of his character—and his romance with Emmy, a 15-year-old white girl from Cali—is filled with some unique and much-deserved complexity.
A love story between two teenagers, the book will appeal to more than a teenage audience. Parents, particularly of tweens and teens, may find themselves conflicted as Bergstrom gives them a birds-eye view of a teen relationship that turns sexual and all-consuming. Reading about this relationship presents many opportunities for maternal eye-rolling, but at the same time tugs at heart strings with that delectable fruit of young love that just might be true love.
An award-winning fiction writer, Bergstrom weaves her tale using first-person narrative, with different characters narrating different chapters. None of the major characters is flawless, but all have more than just a handful of redeeming qualities, giving readers many inlets for becoming emotionally connected with the story. (Readers are bound to appreciate one character or another, if not all.) Certainly some character-narrators are more developed and complex than others, making them more believable and accessible to the reader. This unevenness in Bergstrom’s delivery creates a push/pull dynamic with the reader that makes it easy to put the book down at chapter changes but hard to quit the book as a whole.
Recommended for readers who can tolerate rotating narrators, who love place as much as plot, and who seek sentimental yet well written tales of love, both familial and romantic. This one is worth popping in your swim bag if you’re looking for a story that’s neither too light nor too heavy a read.
Bergstrom, Heather Brittain. Steal the North. Viking, April 2014.
Read a Q & A with the author here. (“I have never lived in a town with a bookstore,” she says. On her fundamentalist Baptist childhood: “I remember, as a teenager, rafting down the Snake River in a long dress… I was educated through the tenth grade in an unaccredited basement academy by deacons’ wives, some of whom, like my mom, hadn’t even finished high school themselves.”)
Buy Steal the North
About the Reviewer:
Formerly the publications director for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC, Jenny Fiore now spends most of her time redirecting used underwear into hampers. A proud stay-at-home mom, she’s slowly returning to her former career in writing and editing. Jenny is a Pushcart Prize special mention honoree for literary nonfiction, and her more noteworthy writing appears in Brain, Child and BRAVA magazines. She loosely blogs at http://themomplex.net/ (This is your editor speaking: Military wives might especially enjoy the honest humor in “More Depressing Than a Sad Santa” — oh my God, the banana lady! — and “Not Enough Mom to Go Around,” but my personal favorite may be “Pinterish: Kinda Sorta Making Something You Saw on the Web,” which could probably, hilariously and somewhat sadly, encapsulate my own entire stay-at-home-mom experience. – Andria).
Jenny is also the author of the essay collection After Birth: Unconventional Writings from the Mommylands (Possibilities Publishing, 2013). Her essay “A Year at the Lake,” about her Green Beret husband’s 15-month deployment when their daughter was a toddler, appears here.