In her debut novel, Steal the North, Heather Brittain Bergstrom draws on her own childhood in eastern Washington and current life in Northern California to share the tale of a shy Sacramento teenager inhabiting those same locales. Bergstrom offers a riveting story of first love entwined with faith, family tragedy and the power of place.
Steal the North begins with 16-year-old Emmy reluctantly heading north to Washington to spend the summer with an aunt, Bethany, about whose existence she has just learned. Emmy’s mother, Kate, had always insisted that she had no living relatives. Now married and expecting a baby, Bethany tracks down her estranged sister and begs her to send Emmy to Moses Lake, Wash.—because Bethany has suffered earlier miscarriages and believes that she needs Emmy’s help, along with a special faith healing ceremony, to carry this child to term.
Staying at her aunt’s trailer park, Emmy meets Reuben, the beautiful, athletic boy next door. As their friendship grows, the socially awkward Emmy begins to feel at home for the first time in her life. Reuben, who is Native American, shares his spiritual connection to the windswept scablands and rivers. The first time she touched the Columbia River, Emmy says, “He told me to close my eyes so I could feel the river’s pulse. It was faint under all that backwater, but it was definitely there.”
As the family drama unfolds, Emmy discovers more about her mother’s secret past and begins to bond with her aunt. Unfortunately, Bergstrom’s narrative strategy occasionally gets in the way; she lets different characters take turns telling parts of the story, and some of those characters are simply not as well-realized as her young leads.
The novel’s strong sense of place prevents Steal the North from becoming just another tangled melodrama. Emmy learns that the rugged eastern Washington landscape is central to her identity. Walking into a wheat field “in the land of my father,” she says, “the land pulled on the bones of my feet. I kept my hands in the dry, rustling wheat and just breathed.”
Bergstrom reminds us that the landscape is more than just a scenic backdrop; it is also the thing that anchors us to our lives.
This review originally appeared in High Country News.
Steal the North
By Heather Brittain Bergstrom
336 pages, $27.95