Sunday, April 20, 2014

"Steal the North"

Heather Brittain Bergstrom has won fiction awards from The Atlantic Monthly, The Chicago Tribune, Narrative Magazine, and others, and a story was named a distinguished and notable story for The Best American Short Stories in 2010. Her short fiction has been published in several literary journals and anthologies. She holds an MFA in creative writing.

Bergstrom applied the Page 69 Test to Steal the North, her debut novel and first published book, and reported the following:
Page 69 of Steal the North happens to be a crucial scene for Kate, the mother of my teenage protagonist. The chapter is narrated in Kate’s voice. She is having an argument here with her boyfriend of four years, Spencer. He loves her deeply, but she has always kept her distance. She is a woman of many secrets, and one of the most shocking is revealed (to Spencer and to readers) on page 69. First, a little background. Kate grew up in eastern Washington in a fundamentalist Baptist church. Her mother died when she and her little sister, Beth, were young girls. Their father was too harsh. When Kate got pregnant as a teenager, she was not only condemned from the pulpit, but shunned by her father, and the farm boy who got her pregnant abandoned her. She and her sister moved out of their father’s house and tried to survive. After the baby—my protagonist, Emmy—was born, Kate got a job waitressing at a truck stop. But eventually Kate realized she had to leave eastern Washington before it destroyed her completely. She boarded a bus bound for California, with baby Emmy on her hip, and never looked back. Beginning a new life in Sacramento, she kept her painful past hidden from everyone, including her daughter and Spencer, the first man to truly love her.

Here are the first sentences from page 69, narrated by Kate:
I try to move away from Spencer. “I don’t need you,” I say. I’ve been struggling to convince myself of that since the day we met.

He grabs my arm. “You need me, Kate. Feminist or not.” Now it’s his turn to laugh. “That’s what scares you. It’s always scared you.”
They argue. She begs him to leave her apartment.
“As soon as you tell me one thing about your childhood. One day. One moment. Let me in, Kate.” I don’t respond. I’m tired and afraid what I might confess. “One detail about Emmy’s dad then,” he says. “At least his name, so I can despise all men with that dickhead’s name.”

“Fine,” I say. “I’ll let you in a bit. But remember you asked for it.” I hesitate because I am about to tell him everything, not just one thing, and it will probably be the end of us. I should shut the windows for privacy, but the cool breeze from the delta will help me not pass out. I press on my jaw once more to stall and to call forth my courage. I begin. “After Emmy’s dad—name of Jamie Kagen—took my virginity, then knocked me up, he dumped me. I was shunned, condemned as a whore from the church pulpit and by my father at home.” Spencer reaches for me. “Wait.” I put up my hand. I’m sweating despite the breeze on the back of my knees. “After I gave birth to Emmy, I waitressed at a truck stop cafĂ©, where I also slept around for money.” His face flinches. “With nasty old men in their stinky truck cabs.” I’ve never told anyone other than Beth my secret. “It turns out I was a whore after all.” He closes his eyes. When he opens them, I continue.
Spencer has finally, after four years, cracked Kate. Can she survive the sudden exposure and vulnerability? Can Spencer, who has had a rather cushy life, live with the weight of what he just heard?
Visit Heather Brittain Bergstrom's website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue