In the blueberry fields of Maine in 1962, a four-year-old Mi’kmaq girl named Ruthie goes missing. Her family, who annually travels from Nova Scotia to Maine to harvest the berries, searches frantically for her, but no trace is found. Ruthie’s older brother Joe was the last to see her and is deeply affected for the rest of his life by her disappearance. As an adult man now suffering from terminal disease, Joe narrates much of the novel and describes how the family survives in the absence of Ruthie.
Meanwhile, Norma begins the novel as a young girl with disturbingly realistic dreams that she cannot place, including her imagining a different mother and a brother, despite being an only child. As she ages, the dreams fade, but the hints that her parents have been concealing something from her about her identity accumulate towards a devastating realization of who she is.
The incredible strength of The Berry Pickers is its exploration of open-ended loss without completely relying on the mysteries of Norma’s identity or Ruthie’s disappearance to give the novel momentum. Norma’s dreams and the suspicious incidents in her life make it obvious to the reader early in the novel that she is in fact the same little girl whom Joe’s family never completely gives up on finding. For example, Norma’s parents can never convincingly answer questions about why her complexion is much darker than theirs, and conveniently there was a fire that destroyed all of their family photos of Norma before the age of four. Discovering her past identity is thus not a plot twist. Joe begins the story with the day his older sister tells him that someone has come to visit and that they have some catching up to do, and so the novel is also not driven by the mystery of whether Ruthie eventually reunites with her birth family. Rather, we are spurred by the significantly more complex question of how and why such a crime could have been committed, and a genuine desire to see Ruthie back with her family.
Peters opens space for deeper empathy from the reader all through Norma’s life, especially as Norma experiences her own grief and navigates her adulthood. Having been told that her mother’s past miscarriages were the reason for how overprotective she was during Norma’s childhood, to the extent of not allowing her to play beyond the limits of the backyard, Norma as an adult decides to stop trying for children after she herself loses a pregnancy. The reader’s knowledge that her mother’s paranoia has much deeper roots – the fear that one day Norma’s birth family would find her or that she would remember them with clarity – creates a unique and aching sense of loss on Norma’s behalf.
Running parallel to his missing sister is Joe’s narrative thread, who lives most of his life with grief over Ruthie and further has to grapple with the loss of another sibling and his own physical mobility. Joe has a long history of self-imposed isolation and shame by the time he sees his little sister again, and his life experiences are quite different from Norma’s but equally compelling. Beyond their individual tragedy, embedded in both his and Norma’s stories are burdens that are disproportionately felt by Indigenous people, including blatant racist treatment and a sense of disconnection from their culture and language. The family is met with dismissal from local authorities when Ruthie first goes missing, and this reaction to her disappearance speaks to the wider crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Peters builds these into a deeply personal story about how we cope with loss, and it is heavy with the question of how easily an entire family’s lives might have been hugely different.
The Berry Pickers is beautifully constructed, even while it examines lengthy pain, and the novel is engrossing from the first chapter. As Joe crosses the continent and back again, and Norma gets closer to the truth of who she is and was, Peters weaves a persistent thread of hope and resilience through her remarkable debut novel.
Our thanks to the publisher, HarperCollins, for the review copy.