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The Berry Pickers


The Berry Pickers

Spot-on perfect. That’s how I’d describe THE BERRY PICKERS.

Amanda Peters is of Mi’kmaq ancestry, an Indigenous people in Nova Scotia. Her debut novel centers on a family of seven who travel south to Maine each summer to pick blueberries and apples, and pull potatoes from the ground. Their housing conditions are migrant-poor, but others arrive each summer, become friends and make money. One August day, four-year-old Ruthie, the youngest member of the family, is sitting on a rock by the roadside eating a bologna sandwich. And then she is not. Though her loved ones spend hours looking for her, they eventually return to Nova Scotia without her. But the search for Ruthie never ends.

"Spot-on perfect. That’s how I’d describe THE BERRY PICKERS.... Amanda Peters has created a rich and layered mystery.... [W]atching Joe and Norma unravel the past and piece together their lives certainly qualifies as a gripping read."

The novel begins with the first storyteller, older brother Joe, who is now dying of cancer in a cigarette smoke-stained room. Norma is the second narrator, an only child of a wealthy couple, and she is slowly piecing her life together. She realizes only in retrospect that some of the stories from her childhood no longer make sense. Readers recognize the connection between the brother who mourns the loss of his sister and the young woman who cannot remember her earliest days. But, of course, neither Joe nor Norma can see the parallels.

Norma becomes aware of the discrepancies told by her overly possessive mother and emotionally cold father. Her uneasiness is documented by moments “she should have known better about” but did not. She remembers sorting through photographs, as children like to do, looking at the lives of her parents, aunts and friends, and notices she is in none of the pictures as a baby. When she asks, her mother says she had been napping. She returns to the basement filing cabinet another day to look again, but the photographs are gone. Adult Norma now sorts through the possibilities of questions she did not ask her mother: “Who is the woman in my dreams?” “Why am I darker than you?” There was a new bicycle in the garage that day, though, and child Norma opted for riding in the sunshine.

Reading Joe’s story through the alternating chapters, we learn he is a victim as well. Young male Indians have the stereotypical curse of alcoholism, and he also has a fiery temper. He barely holds his life together. He hears his older sister called “squaw” by the men she serves at a burger joint. She smiles and proceeds to spit in their coffee. Joe ruins his marriage with carelessness and anger, and his odyssey deep into the Canadian grasslands only ages him and fills him with even more regret. Once again he returns to the blueberry fields and apple orchards of Maine from his boyhood, searching for redemption.

Amanda Peters has created a rich and layered mystery. The outcome may be determined in the first few pages of the novel, so perhaps it is not a traditional whodunit. But watching Joe and Norma unravel the past and piece together their lives certainly qualifies as a gripping read. The families survive losses; their deep love for one another surfaces and strengthens time and again. The growing interest in and empathy for each character is important as they are revealed page by page, incident by incident. THE BERRY PICKERS is a perfect read for understanding people who are both like us and not like us.

Reviewed by Jane T. Krebs on December 15, 2023

The Berry Pickers
by Amanda Peters

  • Publication Date: October 31, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Catapult
  • ISBN-10: 1646221958
  • ISBN-13: 9781646221950