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STORY BEHIND THE BOOK

Writing the book she ‘didn’t want to write,’ Amanda Peters tells ‘a story for the collective history of Indigenous people’

The author of ‘The Berry Pickers’ found the spark for her novel in her father’s memories

Amanda PetersDavid Wilson

“This is the book I didn’t want to write,” Amanda Peters says of “The Berry Pickers” with a chuckle. The author’s father and his Mi’kmaq family were blueberry pickers in Maine in the 1960s and ’70s, and he often told her, “You should write about us.”

Exclusively a fiction writer, Peters ignored his suggestion until the father and daughter road-tripped together from Nova Scotia, where Peters resides, down to Maine in August 2017. “He showed me the berry fields and told me all these wacky, crazy, lovely, amazing stories,” Peters says, “and that first line of Joe’s first chapter just came to me.”

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Joe is one of two narrators in Peters’s haunting novel, a 2023 Barnes & Noble Discover Prize Winner. When his 4-year-old sister, Ruthie, goes missing in the berry fields of Maine where their family works as migrant pickers in 1962, 6-year-old Joe is the last to have seen her, sitting on a favorite rock. For the next 50 years, as the novel unfolds, guilt and rage over his beloved sister’s disappearance ravage him.

The alternate narrator in “The Berry Pickers”' is Norma, whom the reader quickly understands to be Ruthie being raised in a well-to-do neighborhood in Maine. “Originally it was going to be just Joe’s perspective,” Peters says. “Then I wrote the first chapter of Norma, and thought, OK, she has a story to tell.”

The author admits that she put a bit of herself into the character. Like Peters, Norma/Ruthie struggles with her identity. “My mom was not Indigenous and my dad’s Mi’kmaq, so I’ve always felt uncomfortable in my own skin in certain situations.”

Plagued by nightmares she later understands to be memories of early childhood, Norma grows up as the only child of a controlling, anxious white woman and her aloof, if kind, judge husband. As she gets older, Norma notices discrepancies and questions the narrative presented by her “parents.”

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Peters didn’t intend to write a story about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, but these stories are part of her life experience. “I hope to be telling a story for the collective history of Indigenous people,” she says.

“The Berry Pickers” has been categorized as a mystery novel, but Peters thinks of it as a character study. “It’s about a crime that happens, and the ripple effect of that through decades and the impact on family.”

With a hint of resolution offered in the prologue, “The Berry Pickers” offers an unforgettable exploration of grief, love, and kin.

Amanda Peters will discuss her work on Dec. 7 at 6 p.m. at the Cambridge Public Library on Broadway.

Jenny Bartoy is a freelance writer and the editor of “Broken Free: Writers on Estrangement,” a collection in development.