Steal the North tells the story of Emmy Nolan, a sixteen-year-old from Sacramento sent to live with her aunt and uncle in eastern Washington for the summer. This is all fine and dandy, except Emmy had no idea that these relatives even existed. Moreover, they primarily want her to come because they need a virgin to participate in their fundamentalist faith-healing ceremony to keep Aunt Bethany from miscarrying again. Ahh, there’s a another problem: Emmy isn’t exactly a virgin, but declaring this to all involved wouldn’t exactly improve her situation. Personally, the whole “we-need-a-virgin-for-our-ritual” thing is a bit disturbing, but none of the characters seem too phased by this minor detail.
Emmy’s mother, Kate, is struck by the guilt of ignoring her overtly-religious sister for the past fifteen years, so she forces Emmy to go. In spite of several temper tantrums and hitting her mother with the oh-so-powerful silent treatment, Emmy reluctantly makes the trip. She is surprised when she immediately warms to her newly-discovered family, and she warms up even more to the Native American boy next door. Thus begins the most important summer of Emmy’s short existance, and its consequences will stay with her for the rest of her life.
Bergstrom adopts the competing narrative format long ago mastered by Jodi Picoult. In this case, the multiple voices have a clunky effect that detracts from the flow of the story. While the varying perspectives can be informative, some of them are less relevant than others, functioning only to further slow down an already sluggish pace.
The pace doesn’t negatively impact the plot too much, but certain aspects of the novel in general are distractingly clumsy. Asides from the narrative style, the characters can be frustrating and inconsistent. Kate has come from a troubled background, but her aggressive behavior towards her daughter and fiancé is too much to be justified by her upbringing. Her actions are often cruel and vindictive, and seem to go beyond just wanting the best for her daughter.
Bergstrom makes a point to repeatedly remind us of how introverted Emmy is, and yet her behavior around Reuben (the boy next door) alternates between confident and needy. Her growing dependence on him reeks of daddy issues, but no one sees this as problematic. I’m typically not a “ra-ra yay feminism” type of gal, but the underlying message here isn’t a great one for young women – a big problem, since that’s the target audience. I get that Reuben is supposed to be the love of her life, but Emmy quits living to wait for him. Predictably, Kate splits them up after their summer fling, but Emmy refuses to move forward. She spends years – yes, YEARS – sending him unreturned love letters, and eventually journals filled with her adolescent musings. She goes to UC Berkley, but refuses to engage in her surroundings because she is too busy pining for Reuben. He ultimately comes back for her, she drops out of school, and the two presumably live happily ever after.
Sorry, but this just isn’t how life works, and this behavior should not be emulated. Young girls don’t need another novel telling them to wait around for a boy to make up his mind – Twilight did enough damage with that plotline.
I’d like to thank Viking for giving me an advanced copy of this book for review.