The Berry Pickers: A Novel
“Amanda Peters writes with beautiful simplicity. What a joy to read fiction that isn’t cluttered with unnecessary twists and turns and verbiage.”
In her new novel, The Berry Pickers, Amanda Peters builds an engaging story around the kidnapping of a young Mi’kmaq girl whose family travels from Nova Scotia to Maine each summer to work as berry pickers with other members of the Mi’kmaq Nation. Though the most dramatic event, the kidnapping, is revealed at the beginning of the book, Peters skillfully manages to hold the reader’s attention from the first page to the last.
Narrated through the perspective of two main characters, Norma and Joe, the novel begins in 1962 when four-year-old Ruthie goes missing while having lunch near a berry field in Maine with her older brother, six-year-old Joe. When he’s done eating lunch Joe walks to a nearby lake and leaves Ruthie alone to finish her sandwich. When their mother comes looking for them Ruthie is gone.
Joe’s family and the other pickers in their camp search the woods and fields for weeks but don’t find Ruthie. More than a month later, when the picking season is over, they must pack up and go home to Nova Scotia without her. Joe blames himself for his lost sister, a burden that weighs on him the rest of his life.
Using the alternating voices of Norma and Joe the story switches back and forth between the past and present. Where some novels using this format can be confusing, The Berry Pickers is not. The transition between years, events, and points of view is seamless. Readers will find they are just as eager to hear from Norma as from Joe and there is no disappointment when the voice changes from chapter to chapter.
Fifty-six-year-old Joe is terminally ill and being cared for by his sister, Mae. As he lays in bed reflecting on his life, Joe’s memories paint a vivid picture of Ruthie’s disappearance in the berry fields and the impact it had on his family. Though they all bear the pain in different ways, Joe and his mother never give up hope that Ruthie is still alive, somewhere.
“I never count Ruthie among the dead. We returned to those fields along Route 9 every year, but we never found a trace of her. If she was dead, someone would have found something. And besides, when a person dies, there’s finality to it, a heaviness that comes with all endings. Ruthie’s story has no ending.”
Strikingly different from Joe’s family experience, Norma is an only child who was raised in Maine by an overprotective mother and a somewhat aloof father. Though it was a loving home Norma always felt out of place in her family—her skin tone is different from her parents, there are few early photographs of her, and she has recurring dreams of campfires and a woman that feel vaguely familiar to her.
“When I was young, maybe four or five years old, I used to have these dreams. One was full of light and the other dark. It wasn’t until I was in my fifties, and Mother was losing her mind, that I realized that they were one and the same.”
Whenever Norma tried talking with her parents about her dreams they always gave her a reasonable explanation, but as Norma grows into an adult the dreams and reality begin to merge.
“The dreams were a mystery to me until Mother’s mind started to fail her, and those things stored in the deep dark of her conscience leapt out and started to flail about like fish on the lakeshore. And then those dreams came back to me and started to mean something.”
Though it’s easy to see where the story is headed, the author does a wonderful job of blending the divergent lives of Norma and Joe and their families, all while keeping the reader entranced. The Berry Pickers isn’t a mystery, it’s a truth telling by characters you can reach out and touch—characters whose misfortunes, regrets, feelings, and redemption most readers will relate to.
“I don’t cry anymore for my parents. I miss them, yes, but I think that as the ones we love get older, we just start to separate from them, like oil from water, a line separating the living and the dying, the living carelessly gathering at the top.”
Amanda Peters writes with beautiful simplicity. What a joy to read fiction that isn’t cluttered with unnecessary twists and turns and verbiage. In The Berry Pickers every word counts.