Steal The North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom
[S]teal the North is a love story. At its heart is a teenage protagonist, Emmy, who falls for her Native American neighbor while visiting her aunt Bethany, a member of a fundamentalist church in eastern Washington. What keeps this novel from venturing into canned romance novel territory or trite YA fare, a Romeo and Juliet on the reservation? Bergstrom’s novel unfolds through a series of point of view-switching chapters, alternating in voice and perspective between Emmy and her mother, Bethany and her husband, and Emmy’s love interest, Reuben.
Steal the North begins in California’s Sacramento Valley. Before the events in the novel, Emmy’s mother, Kate, escapes difficult circumstances as a young single mother in her fundamentalist church, but it means leaving her sister behind to raise her daughter alone in California. Now Emmy is a petulant teenager, striking out against her college professor mother’s attempts to keep her close while still exposing her to a wide range of ideas—in the controlled safety of books. Emmy is chafing against her mother’s fear-based rules and looking for a way to define herself—often in the arms of a poorly-chosen male companion. “If mom had any idea about Connor,” she says, “especially what he’d just had me do in his bedroom, she would be dumbfounded and probably repulsed. She thought I was still a virgin and encouraged me to remain so until college.” In many ways, this is a novel of misunderstanding. Kate’s encouragement comes from the mistakes that brought her to California in the first place and from not wanting Emmy to repeat them. Assumptions continue to be made on all sides.
Enter Aunt Bethany, who has been out of touch with Kate since she left the church and the state of Washington. Bethany calls looking for Kate and Emmy as a last resort; she’s lost many babies to miscarriage, and she wants Emmy to come stay with her and be a part of a blessing ceremony. She needs a virgin for this ceremony and Emmy fits the bill. Emmy packs her bags and heads to Washington for the summer. Her aunt and uncle’s entire way of life as poor Baptist fundamentalists is foreign. Though she and Kate have lived modestly, Bethany and Matt live in even sparser accommodations:
Mom had cautioned that Beth’s trailer might seem suffocating to me, even with the air conditioning, which she said would run 24/7 […] because of cheap electricity from Grand Coulee Dam. Mom couldn’t believe, after all these years, that Beth and Matt still lived in the same singlewide trailer. Didn’t we live in the same apartment?
Bergstrom’s descriptions of the economically disadvantaged areas of Washington where Emmy goes to live are respectful, though, as are her descriptions of the fundamentalist faith community and life on the reservation. Though the plot devices that bring Emmy, Bethany and Reuben together are simple, Bergstrom writes of each place—Sacramento, the remote areas of Washington where the aunt and uncle live, the Native American reservation where Reuben takes Emmy—with acuteness of detail that makes each place a compelling part of the story.
Grand Coulee Dam
Regret plays heavily into Steal the North, as each of the characters seem to be trying to atone for choices made in the past. Even for Emmy, at sixteen, who would seem to be too young to have made enough mistakes to account for any important level of guilt. She, as many teenagers, struggles with an internal sense of obligation about telling the truth and living up to the image that others have of her. Each character in North believes in carrying the weight of his or her sin, even if he or she isn’t religious. Emmy’s father, too, whose role in the story is largely away from the central action of the plot, expresses regret and a sense of wanting to atone for the past. This is a world where secrets matter and where there is a sense that one is always making up for something. It is not until near the end of the story when family tragedy forces secrets into the open that Kate and Emmy really have to confront the truth they’ve each been hiding. When they do, Bergstrom handles their dialogue with aplomb. This conversation spills out onto the dusty road, and Kate and Reuben also come to terms with each other about what they each think is best for Emmy’s future.
“I worked hard to get Emmy and me out of here,” [Kate] says. “Away from poverty and the church and rednecks.”
“That’s not all there is here.”
“No. There’s you.”
“Yes, I’m here. My people have been here a long time.”
“Your people are suffering.”
Different kinds of love all feature in this story: parent-child, sisterly love, and romantic love in long marriages, adult dating relationships and teenage romance. Characters in the Washington area feel a tie to the land that isn’t present in the Sacramento part of the story, as though the Native American lands possess more of a draw and have more of a hold on each individual. Heather Brittain Bergstrom’s Steal the North is about the guilty burdens we carry, but also the way we allow each other to speak the truth so we can set that guilt down. Too often we wait until it’s too late to say what we need to say. This novel makes a case for pausing to talk things through; sometimes the guilt we carry is heavier than it needs to be.
Heather Scott Partington’s writing has appeared at The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Bookslut, and The Nervous Breakdown. She teaches high school English in Elk Grove, California, and holds an MFA in Fiction from UC Riverside.