Finding an inner compass

Review of “Steal the North” by Brittain Bergstrom.

 

Steal the North
Heather Brittain Bergstrom
315 pages, hardcover:
$27.95
Viking, 2014.

In her debut novel, Steal the North, Heather Brittain Bergstrom has drawn 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. Steal the North begins with 16-year-old Emmy reluctantly heading north to Washington to spend the summer with an aunt, Bethany, whose existence she has just learned about. 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, Washington. For 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. Bergstrom’s first novel offers a riveting story of first love entwined with faith, family tragedy and the power of place.

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 other characters take turns telling parts of the story, and some of those characters are simply not as well realized as her young leads.

But 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.