The Berry Pickers by Amanda Peters
Published by Catapult
Publication date: October 31, 2023
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Historical, Literary, Mystery
For one Mi’kmaq family summers in Maine have always been about sunshine, campfires, and reunions with old friends amidst long days of picking blueberries as migrant workers. Until 1962 when Ruthie, their youngest daughter, disappears, irrevocably changing the lives of the two main characters in Amanda Peters’ stunning debut The Berry Pickers. For Joe it begins a cycle of loss that haunts his entire life and in Norma it leaves behind scars that can’t be explained.
Joe and Norma couldn’t be more different. Joe’s life is one of the outdoors, family, and work. He’s only 7 but he already helps in the fields. When summer is done the family is forced to abandon the search for 4-year-old Ruthie and return to their home in Nova Scotia. As he grows up grief and guilt coalesce into an anger that leaves him unable to hold onto relationships, rootless, and without any sense of self-worth. Despite his family’s love he cuts them out of his life for decades.
Norma lives in a different world than Joe. Her life in a small Maine town consists of a distant father and a mother who overcompensates by being smothering. An only child she grows up in physically comfortable surroundings but emotionally and socially deprived. She yearns for friends and adventures, but her mother’s irrational fear of losing her makes those things impossible. Norma’s childhood is spent weighed down by a quilt of guilt for the pain she causes her mother with her pleas for independence. It only grows heavier when as an adult she takes her freedom, making life choices that continually hurt and disappoint her fragile mother.
Two lives, so dissimilar, but both rendered by Peters with exquisite care and respect. Using a timeline that begins in the 60s she colors them in with 50 years of experiences and emotions that saturate the page and seep into the reader. Within The Berry Pickers the full range of human nature is painted on the page in a way that even the simplest of sentences can cause a heart to clench. Joe feels too much and Norma too little, but for the readers the response to each is visceral.
While there is a mystery for the families in The Berry Pickers it’s not a mystery to readers for long. It is only one aspect of a story simple in its parameters—two families, limited locales—but expansive and immersive in all it captures. Peters doesn’t shy away from the discrimination and derision of the times that was heaped on Indigenous peoples. The novel is filled with the many ways whites saw themselves as superior and the devastating effects of their arrogance.
Alongside this is Norma’s story, one of the safety, security, and advantages of the white world, but with its own trials. The troubles in Joe’s family are eased by the deep balm of strength and abiding love they feel for each other. Norma knows no such solace for the majority of the novel, but even she will feel it in the end. The Berry Pickers is rage-inducing at times, heartbreaking at others, but ultimately utterly luminous.
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