EVERGREEN, a novel that combines a touch of Midwestern folklore with a historical edge, is a lovely yet heartbreaking tale that tells the story of two siblings who are raised apart but are attempting to reconnect as adults within the back woods of northern Minnesota. Writing with raw emotion and a reverence for the simple life, Rebecca Rasmussen has produced a plot-driven story that integrates her characters effortlessly into the storyline while spanning three generations of a family deeply wounded by human frailties. And she accomplishes the latter effortlessly. While interjecting a theme of bittersweet redemption, we are consciously aware that home is where the heart is, and nowhere is this more evident than in her opening quote: “Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.” (Ortega y Gasset)
Without a doubt, this quote defines the basis for the story. The relationship between place and identity is undeniable. What are we really hoping to find when we leave one for the other? “Perhaps following to places where there are others, or where many others have been before, perhaps such a journey reconciles our sense of not belonging, to the mysterious continuity we share and make and are, with all mankind.” Through this “eloquence in prose,” we are reminded of what it means to know that “home is where the heart is,” no matter how many miles apart.
"With much compassion, Rasmussen has displayed an excellence in writing by sharing a homegrown story that envelops a moral compass, utilizing passionate and plain words --- highlighted by a need for human connection."
Mixing this knowledge with exuberance for storytelling, Rasmussen is able to project mental images of her characters, making the pages of her story come alive, within the time and space of her plot, from conception to the end of the novel. And, unlike other stories dealing with human angst, there is very little physical conflict in EVERGREEN. While the characters wage emotional battles within themselves and with one another, no amount of plot is lost in translation because it is so beautifully written. In fact, we are constantly reminded of how the most devastating or important moments of our lives aren’t necessarily accompanied by dramatic fanfare. Many times, a small action can have the least expected or possibly the most significant of consequences.
Told in four parts, EVERGREEN is a deceptively simple story that explores three generations of families living among the forests and rivers of Evergreen, Minnesota. Each one focuses on a year (give or take) in the life of the following characters: Eveline Sturm; her daughter, Naamah; Eveline's son, Huxley "Hux" Sturm; Naamah's daughter, Racina Runk; and Lilly, Reddie and Gunther Runk, Eveline’s lifelong friends. As the story unfolds, from 1938 to 1972, Rasmussen effortlessly displays the changes in her characters through environmental shifts thanks to her visions. We are able to imagine how a broken-down cabin with no running water or electricity becomes a real home with glass windows, and mental images of once-silent forests become more evident in our mind’s eye as the population increases. The hope of each one of these generations is on the line, as new pressures continue to affect the inhabitants, animals and landscape of a once-pristine wilderness.
While sad, EVERGREEN is also uplifting. Yes, the characters have flaws, and, yes, some are not of their own making. But without these flaws, the essence of the book could not soar. With this in mind, and with Rasmussen’s keen eye for character development, the way these flaws are dealt with becomes acceptable, maybe even a little bit agreed upon. Understandably, though, if these choices weren’t made, then EVERGREEN would have been an entirely different book. For instance, if Eveline had moved from the outback to her parent’s home, would she have been safer? Would Hux and Gunther have become lifelong friends, by allowing Hux’s quiet strength and empathy to tame Gunther’s wildness? And would one of the outstanding characters, Lulu, have such an impact on everyone’s lives? Even the treatment that Naamah received from Sister Cordelia in the orphanage was so hard to take, but without a feeling of outrage at this injustice, Naamah’s major flaw never would have come to fruition, and the novel’s storyline would not have been written.
With much compassion, Rasmussen has displayed an excellence in writing by sharing a homegrown story that envelops a moral compass, utilizing passionate and plain words --- highlighted by a need for human connection. Her sense of time, space and suspense, interjected into a heartbreaking tale, makes EVERGREEN a story that is hard to put down. With thought-provoking naivety, we are reminded that the basic need of the human psyche is to connect with others, even if we choose to live apart. And even though I would have liked to have known more about Racina’s relationship with her mother when they finally met, I am ready and willing to wait for the sequel.
Reviewed by Donna Smallwood on July 18, 2014