Meet the author: Heather Brittain Bergstrom

Today on the blog I welcome Heather Brittain Bergstrom. Her novel Steal the North is out today!!

Hallo allemaal. Bedankt dat ik gastblogger bij jou mag zijn, Ciska.

I am a Pacific Northwest native who grew up in eastern Washington. The eastern half of Washington State looks nothing like the western half—the Seattle and Puget Sound of movies. It is high desert. The northernmost tip of the Great Basin, to be exact. Think sagebrush instead of dense pines. Vast open spaces. Scablands. Coulees. Rolling wheat fields. And enormous dams on the “great river of the west”: the Columbia.
I grew up between the two largest Indian reservations in Washington: the Colville and the Yakama reservations. Grand Coulee Dam divides my home county from the Colville Reservation. Native Americans are very much part of the area where I grew up. There’s extreme prejudice against them for being “drunks” and “lazy,” for being allowed to fish in places where whites can’t (part of their treaty rights), and lately for being allowed to help manage some of Washington State’s natural resources.

As a kid, my school took frequent school field trips to the enormous dams on the Columbia River. Dams scared the hell out of me, so I’d sneak into the tiny Native American cultural centers adjacent to the visitor centers. The museums fascinated me. I didn’t realize as a young girl that the museums were afterthoughts by the Bureau of Reclamation: a nifty place to display the tattered remains of indigenous cultures whose centuries-old and sacred fishing sites were now drowned forever in backwater.
Most places in eastern Washington (rivers, towns, dams, schools, lakes) are named after Indians, as if to honor them, but in reality many Native Americans live in extreme poverty. You can drive on highways and roads in eastern Washington, where to the left is reservation land and to the right is nonreservation land. The difference is incredibly sad and unfair. Native Americans in Washington State have survived despite everything whites have done to their land and heritage.
In a way, through the act of writing Steal the North, I stepped back into those tiny museums.

I wrote short stories for a decade before trying my hand at a novel. (Five of my short stories can be found online at Narrative Magazine) In my short stories, the main characters are usually trying to leave eastern Washington, just as I did only days after I graduated from high school. My stories are far more autobiographical. It wasn’t until I’d been away from my homeland for over a decade that I began to miss it. I thought why not write a character, for the first time, who misses eastern Washington instead of another one who is desperately trying to flee it. What if a California girl (Emmy), who attends an art high school in Sacramento and lives in a midtown apartment surrounded by theatres and ethnic restaurants, is suddenly sent north for the summer to eastern Washington to live with her fundamentalist aunt and uncle in a trailer park surrounded by sagebrush and potato fields? And what if, instead of hating it, the girl falls madly in love with
the landscape, her aunt and uncle, and the Native American neighbor boy (Reuben)? I wanted to write a novel about a woman (Emmy’s mom) who had turned her back completely on her past, including her family, her faith, and the landscape that had shaped her. In doing what Lot’s wife had been unable to do, however, this woman left her daughter without any connections and no sense of herself. Steal the North is a novel of reclamation: a daughter’s journey to steal back her birthright. The idea of birthright—I believe that was the spark.

The title, Steal the North, evokes the Native American myths in the novel. These myths are most at play in Reuben’s chapters, of course, because he is Native American. But he also shares these myths with Emmy. Even Aunt Beth, who believes truth comes only from the Bible, knows an Indian myth or two. They are part of the land. The title also evokes native myths in a larger context. Coyote, Raven, and other Animals—in the time before humans—stole the sun, stole fire from the Sky People, stole each other’s wives, stole food, tails, fancy clothing. My female protagonist, Emmy, steals the north (her birthright) from her mom, the dad she’s never met, and even her beloved aunt and makes it her own. Reuben and Emmy steal the north for themselves: by taking long drives, but also in the way lovers take intimate possession of places. And then, of
course, the north was stolen from the Indians by whites. There is another way that the title works,
but to discuss it would give away the ending.

I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist church. A few of my short stories deal with this large aspect of my childhood. But they didn’t quite get it out of my system. I needed the length and depth of a novel to further explore this. Spirituality is a strong theme in Steal the North.
Oddly, I kept coming across parallels while writing this novel between the Christian church and Native American spirituality and culture. The healing ceremony that brings Emmy to eastern Washington for the summer doesn’t seem as bizarre after Reuben explains that his people still have healing ceremonies at the end of the twentieth century. Reuben admits he is a “sweat lodge junkie.” His confession makes Emmy’s conflictions with purity seem not as ridiculous. I did not set out to equate these two very different religions and cultures, but I kept finding parallels. If nothing else the Native American spirituality in Steal the North tempers the harsher Christianity. In reality, many tribes have melded their native religion and Christianity. This melding drove the early missionaries nuts. I find it beautiful.

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1 reacties:

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10 April, 2014 delete

Thanks so much, Ciska, for having me on your blog. It is an honor to be part of your "Meet the Author" series. I am so excited that my debut novel, STEAL THE NORTH, is finally launching into the world today. Thanks again for your support.