I wrote short stories for years before trying my hand at a novel. In my short stories, the main characters
are usually trying to leave eastern Washington, just as I did only days after I graduated from high school. My stories are far more autobiographical. It wasn’t until I’d been away from my homeland for over a decade or more that I slowly began to miss it. I thought why not write a character, for the first time, who misses eastern Washington instead of another one who is desperately trying to flee it. What if a California girl, who attends an art high school in Sacramento and lives in a midtown apartment surrounded by theatres and ethnic restaurants is suddenly sent north for the summer to eastern Washington to live with her fundamentalist aunt and uncle in a trailer park surrounded by sagebrush and potato fields? And what if, instead of hating it, the girl falls madly in love with the landscape, her aunt and uncle, and the Native American neighbor boy? I wanted to write a novel about a woman who had turned her back completely on her past, including her family, her faith, and the landscape that had shaped her. In doing what Lot’s wife had been unable to do, however, this woman left her daughter without any connections and no sense of herself. Steal the North is a novel of reclamation: a daughter’s journey to steal back her birthright. The idea of birthright—I believe that was the spark.
I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist church. A few of my short stories deal with this large aspect of my childhood. But they didn’t quite get it out of my system. I needed the length and depth of a novel to further explore this. Spirituality is a strong theme in Steal the North. Oddly, I kept coming across parallels while writing this novel between the Christian church and Native American spirituality and culture. The healing ceremony that brings Emmy to eastern Washington for the summer doesn’t seem as bizarre after Reuben explains that his people still have healing ceremonies at the end of the twentieth century. Reuben admits he is a “sweat lodge junkie.” His confession makes Emmy’s conflictions with purity seem not as ridiculous. I did not set out to equate these two very different religions and cultures, but I kept finding parallels. If nothing else the Native American spirituality in Steal the North tempers the harsher Christianity. In reality, many tribes have melded their native religion and Christianity. This melding drove the early missionaries nuts. I find it beautiful.
Steal the North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom
A novel of love in all its forms: for the land, for family, and the once-in-a-lifetime kind that catches two people when they least expect it
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. With Louise Erdrich’s sense of place and a love story in the tradition of Water for Elephants, this is an atmospheric family drama in which the question of home is a spiritual one, in which getting over the past is the only hope for the future.
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