The Berry Pickers by Amanda Peters

Family, loss and devastating secrets lie at the heart of the story Amanda Peters tells in her slow-burning debut novel, The Berry Pickers.

In 1962, a Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq family travels to Maine, where they have gone for many years to spend the summer picking berries. That year there are five children, the youngest, Ruthie, just four years old. One day, Ruthie and six-year-old Joe go off together to eat their lunch. Joe, distracted by something, leaves his sister on her own, and Ruthie goes missing.

But as she grows older, unsettling questions arise that pique her curiosity and raise suspicions that all is not as it should be—questions such as why are there no photos of her as an infant, and why is her skin darker than her parents’—questions that her mother and father seem at a loss to answer.

Peters’ novel traces the effects of this traumatic loss on Ruthie’s family while also providing the reader with a window into Ruthie’s adult years and her search for her true identity. Peters splits the narrative into two alternating threads. In the first we find Joe, now in his fifties, at home with his family after many years of self-imposed exile, obsessing over past mistakes and failures. Joe is dying of cancer. The other thread follows a character named Norma, an only child raised by a husband and wife in a comfortable New England setting. Though over-protective and tight lipped about the past, her parents have been good to her, and Norma’s life has been happy. But as she grows older, unsettling questions arise that pique her curiosity and raise suspicions that all is not as it should be—questions such as why are there no photos of her as an infant, and why is her skin darker than her parents’—questions that her mother and father seem at a loss to answer.

Peters follows her two main characters through their middle years and into later life. Joe, tormented by guilt over being the last family member to see Ruthie before her disappearance, and anguished over the death of older brother Charlie, resorts to booze and violence. One night, after getting drunk and striking his wife hard enough to draw blood, he leaves Nova Scotia and his family, first heading west, then returning to Maine, where for many years he works as a farm hand and manual laborer. Norma, living in New England, studies literature in college, gets a teaching job, marries, divorces. But down through the years, the mystery of Ruthie’s disappearance continues to eat away at Joe and his family, and at the same time Norma’s questions about her own origins deepen.

But down through the years, the mystery of Ruthie’s disappearance continues to eat away at Joe and his family, and at the same time Norma’s questions about her own origins deepen.

In her first novel Amanda Peters is less concerned with sustaining a mystery than with depicting the emotional toll of profound loss and dark family secrets on the human psyche. The reader will see the resolution coming, but this takes nothing away from the experience of reading the book because Peters finds other ways to generate suspense and wraps up her story in a manner that is dramatically satisfying.

In her first novel Amanda Peters is less concerned with sustaining a mystery than with depicting the emotional toll of profound loss and dark family secrets on the human psyche.

This is a novel that unapologetically touches the heart, but it also raises urgent questions about identity and social justice. Moving and often gripping, The Berry Pickers is a triumph of empathetic storytelling. It also announces Amanda Peters as a writer to watch.

Amanda Peters is a writer of Mi’kmaq and settler ancestry. Her debut novel, The Berry Pickers, was the winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and the 2023 Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, and was a finalist for the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Amazon First Novel Award. Peters is a graduate of the master of fine arts program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has a certificate in creative writing from the University of Toronto. She lives and writes in the Annapolis Valley Nova Scotia where she is an Associate Professor in English and Theatre at Acadia University.

Publisher: HarperCollins Canada (April 4, 2023)
Paperback 6.25″ x 9″ | 320 pages
ISBN: 9781646221950

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Ian Colford’s short fiction has appeared in many literary publications, in print and online. His work has been shortlisted for the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Journey Prize, the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and others. His latest novel, The Confessions of Joseph Blanchard, was the winner of the 2022 Guernica Prize and was published by Guernica Editions in 2023. He lives in Halifax.