Sunday, June 16, 2024

On My Bookshelf: The Berry Pickers, by Amanda Peters

In this debut novel, Amanda Peters, a writer of Mi’kmaw and settler ancestry, tells the story of two families whose fates are intertwined in a story of loss, deception, and redemption. The story opens in Maine in 1962, where we are introduced to a Mi’kmaw family that has come from Nova Scotia to pick berries. It’s an annual job, involving both parents and all the children: Ben, Mae, Charlie, Joe, and four-year-old Ruthie. They join families from all over Nova Scotia for the annual event. It seems a safe, family-friendly environment, adults and teens working while the younger children try to pitch in or just amuse themselves. It seems safe, until little Ruthie disappears. She was there, at the edge of the field, on her favourite rock, playing with her rag doll, then she was gone. Six-year-old Joe was supposed to be watching her, we learn in the first chapters. He spends the rest of his life looking and regretting those few moments.

Elsewhere in Maine, young Norma grows up an only child in an affluent white family. Her mother (who is always Mother, never mom or momma) is extremely overprotective and secretive. Her father is aloof. And, Norma has upsetting realistic dreams of another family, her skin is darker than her parents, she questions the total absence of her baby pictures. We know from the outset that she is Ruthie. The plot of the story is driven by unravelling of how this crime happened and how it comes to be resolved.

The story is told alternately by Joe and Norma. Joe informs us of the terrible difficulties the family endured in missing Ruthie. So many years have passed and the family still feels a hole in its centre. This wasn’t a death, this was a vanishing, unexplained and cruel. Joe’s story is of a painful, often isolating life. Norma’s life story is very different, and of course we as readers know why. We know she is the missing Ruthie, yet she doesn’t. The author draws us deeply into Norma’s life as she experiences a failed marriage, miscarriages, and her own sense of isolation. When her mother dies, the truth begins to come out.

There is a sadness to this book but there is also a sense of excitement and hope. We know Ruthie is coming home. We know Joe and the whole family will find a peace they have been missing. This brought me a feeling of page-turning anticipation, the strong desire to read just one more chapter before turning out the light at bedtime.

When I was growing up, my family had a summer home in Michigan on the lake. The ‘Berry Pickers’ were migrant workers from southern places, like Appalachia, who came to work in the fields during harvest season. As children, we knew nothing of their circumstances, except the adults were leery of them, even the children we wanted to play with. It was not a complimentary term – Berry Picker.

It was something your mother might call you if your hair was unbrushed or your socks were dirty. The treatment of Joe’s family by the local police and townspeople in Maine brought back those memories. We can be so quick to disdain or belittle the ‘other’ in our society.

This is a first book for Amanda Peters. She has demonstrated her strong writing skills and her ability to develop strong characters. The story has stayed with me, giving me pause to think and reflect on both the pain and the hope shared in these pages.

 

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