Steal the North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom
Pub. Date: April 14, 2014
Source: finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Viking!)
Summary: Emmy is a shy, sheltered sixteen-year-old when her mom, Kate, sends her to eastern Washington to an aunt and uncle she never knew she had. Fifteen years earlier, Kate had abandoned her sister, Beth, when she fled her painful past and their fundamentalist church. And now, Beth believes Emmy’s participation in a faith healing is her last hope for having a child. Emmy goes reluctantly, but before long she knows she has come home. She feels tied to the rugged landscape of coulees and scablands. And she meets Reuben, the Native American boy next door.
In a part of the country where the age-old tensions of cowboys versus Indians still play out, theirs is the kind of magical, fraught love that can only survive with the passion and resilience of youth. Their story is mirrored by the generation before them, who fears that their mistakes are doomed to repeat themselves in Emmy and Reuben.
Genre: Adult, Fiction
A few months ago I discussed imprints and I mentioned one of my go-to imprints (according to my ratings) is Viking. Steal the North is one of Viking’s latest releases and, once again, proves just how well that imprint knows me.
Steal the North is not a happy story by any means. Instead it’s a story of a family brought together by lies and tragedy and shows how they cope with the past and, ultimately, struggle to move on. Sixteen-year-old Emmy thought her only family was her mother. Her world shatters when she finds out that, not only is her father alive and well, but she also has an aunt and uncle living in Washington. Even more shocking is when Emmy’s mother tells her she’ll be spending the summer with her new-found family. Kate was just barely out of her teens when she became pregnant. Having been raised in a fundamentalist church, Kate’s pregnancy cast her out of the only thing she knew. Her father disowned her, the church disowned her, the boy she planned on marrying took off. In order to support herself and Emmy, Kate did unspeakable things and, when she couldn’t take it anymore, left Washington for California in order to start a new life. It’s been sixteen years since she last spoke to her sister and now her family needs her help.
When Kate left, Bethany lost a huge part of herself. Her older sister was her rock and the year she was able to spend with Emmy was the happiest she’d ever been. Since she was a child Bethany’s dream was to have children of her own, but she’s suffered miscarriage after miscarriage and realizes she has one more chance. While Matt can’t convince her to see a doctor, Bethany has started looking into alternative medicine – herbs, plants, but not to the extent that her fellow worshipers would become suspicious. The new pastor has agreed to do a healing and Bethany’s niece is needed for a vital role. Next door to the Millers lives a Native American family. Life on the reservation might provide them with family, but the trailer court holds far more stability and a life away from gangs and poverty. Theresa supports her kids as best as she can and her younger brother Reuben helps out whenever she needs him. The summer Emmy spends in Washington brings together two wildly different families and she discovers what it truly means to be home.
Steal the North is beautiful. It’s heartbreaking. It’s emotional, raw, real. The story is set in the late ’90s and, in the easiest way to get to my heart, features numerous points of view. I don’t want to say Emmy is the standout character, though the story is very much about her. Bethany, Reuben, and Kate are every bit as important to the story and each chapter shows a side to the story that wasn’t there before. Bethany, with her homemade dresses and long hair. Kate’s bitterness and regret. Reuben’s desire to hold onto his Colville traditions. I was pleasantly surprised that even minor characters were given a chapter or two: Jamie, Emmy’s father, isn’t quite the deadbeat he’s originally made out to be. Spencer, Kate’s boyfriend, loves her and Emmy more than anything and is determined to become a family. Every single character, big or small, was beautifully written and felt like people I could easily pass on the street or stand behind in line at the grocery store.
Be warned, though: this isn’t a lazy day read. It’s not a novel to be devoured in an afternoon. I spent well over a week with this book and I feel that truly helped me get a real feel for the place and the characters that I would have missed had I raced through it. I also feel that my slow reading pace subconsciously mirrored the slow story-telling – and I don’t mean that in a bad way! Steal the North was not a novel that dragged its feet or one that bored me. Instead, it was a story that simply wasn’t ready to give up its secrets; instead I had to earn them and when I finally discovered the truth it hit me hard. My heart broke a hundred times over for these characters and while my life isn’t anything like theirs, by the end of the book I wanted to reach out to my family. That is the sign of good story-telling, ladies and gentlemen.
My only – only! – complaint about the novel has nothing to do with the story itself, but with the cover. Personally I find the cover stunning, but what you can’t see on the screen is that, because of the camera angle, there’s a clear view down the model’s dress. It would have been so easy to fix: a different angle, different lighting, a different dress.
It floors me that Steal the North is Bergstrom’s first novel. With a debut like this there’s no telling what the future holds – but I look forward to it! Steal the North was filled to the brim with emotion: heavy subjects like loss and race were handled with grace and the love coursing through these pages hit home. This is definitely a novel I’ll be talking about for a long, long time and certainly one I’ll be recommending to friends, family, and customers. Pick up a copy of this novel – trust me.
Matt claims I’ve never gotten over the loss of my sister. He says it might’ve been easier if Kate had died like our mother because then I wouldn’t be more betrayed every year that passes without her making contact. But Kate didn’t betray me. There’s more to her leaving than Matt knows.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the day I boarded a bus bound for California, I followed in the footsteps of the Donners and the Joads and the millions of others who have left their pasts behind to seek and, in my case, find redemption in the Golden State.