Published by Penguin on April 10th 2014
Genres: Coming of Age, Family Life, Fiction, General
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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 itEmmy 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 hadabandoned 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.
Anyway, for the most part the story is compelling for the first two thirds of the book. The characters are well written and although romance is a central element in the story, this is not really a romance novel. In the same vein, although the primary protagonist is sixteen, I wouldn’t necessarily classify this as a YA novel. It plays on heavy themes such as family, God, race relations, and feminism. (Though I suspect the feminism was a part of my own personal reading.)
I appreciated the juxtaposition between Reuben’s Native American faith and the fundamentalist Baptist church that Beth attends. Emmy’s searching for meaning in the world leaves both the character and the reader introspective. But this is not a Christian novel. (I mean that as a good thing.)
The race-relations between the Native Americans and the white citizens surrounding the reservation was also timely reading for me in the wake of the tragedy that is (still) unfolding in Ferguson, MO. I found this part to be exceptionally done, with emphasis on mutual respect and the idea that if we’re ever going to have peace, we need first, (especially those of us in the majority) need to find empathy and understanding – to try to put aside our defensiveness and empathize with what our brown and black brothers and sisters have been through (and in many cases are still going through). Anyway. Enough of my preaching – just know that Bergstrom does a superb job in the book tackling this subject and the writing never becomes preachy or prosaic.
I found the characters to be interesting and for the most part, well fleshed out. My primary problem is that Kate, our one feminist character, who is independent — almost to a fault, is continually referred to as a bitch. There is the expected mother/daughter misunderstanding, but even with Kate’s long term boyfriend, we get glimpses into his views on her bitchiness. Further, there seems to be no redemption for Kate with her independent do it yourself spirit. Instead, Bergstrom chooses to write her into standard gender roles at the end, which was a bit disappointing.
Which brings me to the end. Don’t worry – I’m not going to spoil. But the first two thirds of this book are written so beautifully, the slow reveal of who the characters are and the situations in which they are in and have been in. I won’t say that the end ruins the whole novel, but it definitely brings it down a bit. The end of the book takes us down familiar tropes that are found in YA and romance novels. This might actually appeal to many people, but the tone of the book sets itself up for an ending that could have been open-ended and very satisfying. C’est la vie. We’re all still looking for the perfect novel.
I found this novel to be quite enjoyable. It does have its faults, but if you’re looking for a book about the unknown parts of the Pacific Northwest, or something with important themes in the undercurrent of the book. This is an excellent choice. It’s also an excellent choice if you’re not looking for these things, for while the themes are explored – they are by no means overwhelming and a surface level reading of this book could be quite enjoyable as well. (Extra points for the beautiful – textured – cover.)
It’s also important to note that this is a debut novel. I’m looking forward to seeing what Bergstrom has in store for us in the future.
Tell me what you’re thinking, dear Readers. Can an unsatisfying ending ruin the rest of a novel for you? Can you read a book with heavy themes in the undercurrents casually? (I have difficulty doing so, myself.)