Author Amanda Peters is a Nova Scotian, but her debut novel, “The Berry Pickers,” displays a perceptive understanding of the lives of migrant workers in midcoast Maine.

A desperate woman takes home a child not her own. To say that it is every parent’s worst nightmare is to state the obvious. Nightmares come in all shapes, sizes and intensities. But the sudden loss of a small child is a particularly cruel circumstance, not to be wished upon anyone.

The book explores the ramifications of her act, which resonates across generations. The act is irrational, and made worse, if possible, because it takes place within a culture that disregards, or openly disparages, its victims. The members of the little girl’s Indigenous family try to maintain their connection to each other and their own culture, though the “settlers” challenge and thwart their efforts and show the family little respect. How each character adapts to the trauma are the stories “The Berry Pickers” excels at telling.

In July 1962, a family of Indigenous farmworkers from Nova Scotia is forever changed after 4-year-old Ruthie disappears while her parents and older siblings are off picking blueberries. The local police aren’t at all concerned about the missing Mi’kmaq child, and the white landowner only wants his crop brought in.

“This ain’t my problem, Lewis,” Mr. Ellis tells Ruthie’s dad. “This just ain’t my problem. Do you know what my problem is? I need those berries picked.”

Ruthie’s older brother Joe tells the story of how the Mi’kmaq family does everything in their power to find Ruthie, but they wind up leaving the migrant camp without her. The last to have seen the child is then 6-year-old Joe. The guilt of leaving his baby sister behind torments Joe through the following decades.


Joe’s trauma and guilt are compounded during a subsequent blueberry season when his older brother Charlie is beaten by a family of white guys at a carnival, with Joe as an impotent onlooker. Joe, thereafter, leads a life full of bad decisions, his misery culminating in a terminal case of cancer.

As recounted from a second point of view, a young woman named Norma looks back on her life as part of an affluent family with its share of secrets. As an only child, she has dreams of riding in a car with “a woman who wasn’t my mother but had my mother’s face,” and visions of a brother. She tells her imaginary friend Ruthie of her dreams and is dismissed by her parents as being overly imaginative.

But her suspicions persist. Reading in high school biology class how “it’s not common for two people who have attached earlobes to have a baby with unattached earlobes,” Norma can’t stop asking questions that no one else wants to hear.

Peters, a writer of both Mi’kmaq and settler ancestry, captures the nuances of life in rural northern New England. Her scenes with the Indigenous peoples are respectful without resorting to cliché. Joe’s self-destructive streak, which harms his wife and the daughter he did not stick around for, is complex, not in any way like the “drunken Injun” stereotype.

Norma grows up in an affluent, loving home, her father withdrawn, her mother vigilant to the point of paranoia. Norma rejoices at the tiniest bit of freedom, such as a three-day church camp.

“Despite all the things my mother imagined, nothing terrible happened to me at camp. There were no sinister men hiding behind trees, lake currents to pull me under or cliffs to fall from.”


Although not marketed as a crime novel, “The Berry Pickers” generates its own brand of suspense. The alternating points of view propel the story forward in ways not easily allowed by a single perspective. Norma’s and Joe’s family members are seen from a distance, but the juxtapositions between the families – outsiders or insiders – are haunting.

Readers will find Joe’s and Norma’s searches for the truth by turns heartbreaking, brave and often very funny, the humor off-setting the harrowing subject.

By the end of the saga, which spans nearly 50 years, the puzzle pieces all fit together. Although the tragic mystery at its center is solved, “The Berry Pickers” leaves behind survivors still recovering from their time in the wilderness.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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