‘Steal the North’: finding her past in Eastern Washington
In her debut novel, “Steal the North,” Heather Brittain Bergstrom paints a vivid picture of the Eastern Washington landscape, the backdrop for a cast of characters with many secrets. Bergstrom appears Friday, June 20, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
Heather Brittain Bergstrom
The author of “Steal the North” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, June 20, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
‘Steal the North’
by Heather Brittain Bergstrom
Viking, 315 pp., $27.95
You feel the landscape of Eastern Washington in nearly every chapter of this astonishingly assured debut novel from Heather Brittain Bergstrom, who grew up there and now lives in Northern California. Told as a series of first-person narratives by the main characters, “Steal the North” is a vivid story of hidden secrets, religious repression and cultural collisions that are revealed in clearly distinctive voices. The later chapters are permeated with such a strong sense of place — the fields, the landscapes, the rivers, farms and tribal reservations — that it’s easy to visualize the big canvas on which these events take place.
The story starts with Emmy, a quiet-spoken, bright 16-year-old whose mother is Kate, a community-college teacher in California. The events of the novel are kick-started by a phone call from an aunt Emmy didn’t know she had. We discover that Kate, an unwed teen abandoned by her baby’s young father, has left her family of religious fanatics (the father has condemned her from the pulpit of his fundamentalist Baptist church) and fled to California. There she has raised Emmy in complete ignorance of family history: Kate has told her that her father is dead and that there are no aunts or uncles.
The phone call, from Kate’s only sibling Beth, is based on what initially seems a very weak premise. Beth, who has had many miscarriages, is now pregnant for what she senses is the last time, and she wants niece Emmy — whom she believes is a virgin — to come north for a faith healing ceremony that will ensure the success of this last-chance pregnancy. Forbidden by her faith to visit a doctor, read any secular books, or use the Internet, Beth and her kind-natured husband, Matt, live in a trailer park next to Reuben Tonasket, a young Native American who is soon drawn to young Emmy.
Complications of many kinds ensue, not the least of which is the tension between the “Indians and cowboys” that Reuben clearly elucidates in his narratives. Scorched by her own ill-fated teen romance and proud that she has gotten Emmy away from “poverty and the church and rednecks,” Kate fights to get her daughter back to California and a life with her and Kate’s future husband, who is deeply and appropriately fond of Emmy. Entranced by Reuben and by the wheat fields, coulees and culture of Eastern Washington, Emmy doesn’t want to go.
The denouement is a little overwrought, and the last few chapters feel hurried, compressing longer time periods in a race to the finish. But nothing can dim the pleasure of this affectionate and authentic-feeling tribute to the land and people of Moses Lake, the Colville Reservation, the early settlers and the tribes they displaced, and the author’s big-hearted passionate characters.
Melinda Bargreen is the former classical music critic for The Seattle Times. She’s a freelance contributor to the Times and reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM (www.king.org).