Published by Knopf
Publication date: July 8th 2014
Genres: Fiction, Literary
A small cabin without running water, indoor plumbing, or electricity, in the wilderness of Minnesota is the setting for Rebecca Rasmussen’s new novel, Evergreen. In it, the young Evaline joins her new husband Emil who hopes to build their life as a taxidermist to the numerous hunters and sportsmen who live in the region’s lumber towns. Although a city girl, Evaline embraces life in the woods with her husband and, nine months later, their baby boy, Hux. When Emil learns that his father back in Germany is dying he feels he must return to say goodbye. Despite his wishes that Evaline move back to her family’s home while he is gone, she decides to stay in their cabin, feeling that this is her home now. Their life is quiet but idyllic, enhanced by visits from an eccentric neighbor named Lulu and her son Gunther. Unfortunately, this world is shattered by a visit from a con man who rapes Evaline, leaving her pregnant and with a horrible choice to make.
Emil finally returns home after being trapped in Nazi Germany and life with his wife and son resumes while many miles away at an orphanage in Green River there is a young girl named Naamah. Though she cannot understand why, her very existence seems to plague the head mother, a fierce and unyielding nun named Sister Cordelia. She is told time and again that her mother is a prostitute in one of the logging camps and so she is possessed by the devil, who must be beaten out of her. Finally, at age fourteen she escapes and goes to the camps to find the woman who left her. Her real mother, Evaline, mourns her decision and her lost daughter to her dying day but never reveals her secret.
She saw her in her dreams, always at the corner of her vision, a girl with hair as black as roots and eyes as grey as storm clouds, her skin cold to the touch. Sometimes, despite herself, Evaline would call to her, but the girl would never come; she’d only stand there from afar watching Evaline with love or hate or both rooting her to the ground.
It is after both his parents have died that Hux discovers he has a sister. He goes to the orphanage to find her but only encounters the horror of Sister Cordelia.
In front of him was a woman who’d lived her life on a leash of her own making and would die on one, and he felt sorry for her the way he felt sorry for her the way he felt sorry for wounded animals when there was no one to put them out of their misery.
When he does finally find her, Hux brings Naamah home and tries to create the family life she never had. Sadly, Naamah is so damaged by her upbringing in the orphanage and the twisted emotional and physical abuse of Sister Cordelia that real relationships are beyond her. She has no way to ground herself and is, internally, like a wild animal. She seeks comfort and finds her greatest joy in being outdoors. Hux’s childhood friend, Gunther, now a hunter and outdoorsman, falls in love with her and they marry but even this likeminded man with his natural exuberance is not enough to stop her from hurting herself. When Naamah gives birth to a baby girl the past returns and she believes she is faced with the same choice as her mother. Her self-awareness leaves her anguished with the knowledge that she cannot live a normal life.
Rasmussen’s rendering of each of the characters in Evergreen is as delicate and exquisite as the taxidermy work of Emil and Hux. In contrasting the raw beauty and simplicity of the woods of Minnesota against the psychological depth of the people who inhabit them she gives us a novel that is tender, painful and, ultimately, redemptive.
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