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"The Berry Pickers: A Novel" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider

Indigenous people from Nova Scotia, who annually journeyed to Maine to pick blueberries, are center stage in the page turner, “The Berry Pickers: A Novel” by Amanda Peters. This entertaining work of historical fiction is an easy read, one that captures interest from the first page when we are introduced to Joe, one of the narrators.

Joe is only middle-aged but is dying. From his sick bed he reflects on his past and the hard scrabble existence his Mi’kmaq family endured as “pickers” for landowner, Mr. Ellis, a cold-hearted individual only loyal to the workers because of what they can do for him. Not only were these workers paid less than fair wage, they were treated unfairly because of the color of their skin—often bearing the brunt of racist comments and cruelty that could come to blows.

While a disease eats away at Joe’s body, his mind and conscience suffer his transgressions and the guilt of a loss his family suffered that Joe always felt responsible for. On his watch, his younger sibling Ruthie disappeared, as if in thin air. She’d been Joe’s ward that long ago day, the boy, only 6, having gotten instructions from his mother to watch over his sister. Ruthie was 4 when the tragic mishap occurred, and for decades the incident has haunted Joe, who along with his mother never believed Ruthie was dead.

The tragedy was especially painful for Joe’s mother, who’d had to adjust to the loss of Charlie, another of her children—his demise resulting from a fight at a carnival in which he’d tried to stand up for someone being beaten by a group of no accounts. Charlie was killed, but the police did nothing, justice wasn’t served because of the Mi’kmaq boy’s race.

As Joe’s story is revealed in a leisurely, comprehensive manner, the author introduces Norma, another richly-drawn narrator. Her tale, from child-to-adulthood is equally addictive. Raised not far from where Joe and his family lived in a make-shift shack, Norma has fared better economically; her parents are comfortably fit financially, but the child suffers mightily from nightmares, confusion and anxiety.

Norma tries to make sense of her controlling mother, a woman who maintains strict rules about Norma’s day-to-day existence. As Norma grows and matures, she continually hits dead-ends as she tries to piece together her past and understand why her mother is the way she is.

“The Berry Pickers” piqued my interest because of its subject matter, the Mi’kmaq people from Nova Scotia an Indigenous group I’d not read about before. That, coupled with empathic characters I soon grew to care about, and a heart-wrenching plot that totally hooked me, spelled hours of pleasant reading with a novel I had trouble setting aside.

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