The first novel from award-winning short-story writer Heather Brittain Bergstrom celebrates the tenacity of teenage love. “Steal The North” ($27.95 in hardcover from Viking; also for Amazon Kindle) tells the story of 16-year-old Emmy Nolan, sent by her mother Kate in Sacramento to eastern Washington state, there to take part in a healing ceremony for Kate’s sister.
Bethany and husband Matt are part of a fundamentalist Baptist sect; the preacher, Brother Mathias, wants the ceremony to include a young virgin. Beth has had a series of miscarriages that have ruined her health; now she is pregnant again. Kate has kept many things from Emmy, including the existence of Emmy’s aunt and uncle, but Emmy is not forthcoming either. She is no virgin.
While staying with Beth and Matt, whom she comes to love deeply, she meets a sixteen-year-old Native American named Reuben Tonasket. It’s pretty much love at first sight. In their lovemaking, Emmy and Reuben open up to each other, partly. Family secrets still abound.
Kate had grown up in the area, but her husband left her and she became a trucker’s prostitute to pay the bills. She tells Emmy that her father is dead, but that’s a lie. As Spencer, Kate’s boyfriend, puts it: “Guys like women with a little mystery. Kate had a whole sea of it inside her. I was standing on the shore.”
Each chapter is narrated by one of the main characters. In an interview Bergstrom says that “I grew up between the two largest Indian reservations in Washington State: the Colville and the Yakama reservations.” But it was a challenge to get Reuben’s narration right: “How could I possibly begin to understand what it is like to be a Native American youth? How can I possibly understand their spirituality? Their culture? Their sorrow, joy, loss, love?”
Yet Reuben, flawed human, emerges as a noble figure who must make an extraordinary sacrifice. The reader will cheer the ending, but long be haunted by the rawness of a family history laid bare and the courage of the very young.
Lyon Books in Chico will be hosting Bergstrom for a reading and book signing Thursday, April 17 at 7:00 p.m.