During the 1960s and 1970s, Amanda Peters spent her childhood summers picking berries in Maine. In her stunning debut novel, The Berry Pickers, the Canadian author, of both Mi’kmaq and settler ancestry, draws on her vivid memories from that time. But the story she tells is a chilling one.
It’s 1962, and a Mi’kmaq family travels to the fields of Maine, like they do every summer to pick berries—but at the start of their trip, their youngest child vanishes without a trace. It’s a tragedy that remains unsolved for nearly fifty years and the loss ripples through their life for decades to come. With tenderness and care, Peters explores trauma, survivor’s guilt, family bonds, and love across time.
“I wanted to tell a good story, a story about a Mi’kmaq family and the love they ultimately share,” says Peters, who is based in Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. The book has received high praise from several bestselling authors, including Michelle Good (Five Little Indians), who’s called it a “must-read”. “This is an emotional novel that is beautifully rendered. An amazing read from a talented new voice,” said Good.
While writing The Berry Pickers, Peters was honoured to receive mentorship from award-winning author Katherena Vermette (The Strangers). Of all the wisdom Vermette imparted, it was the way she guided Peters to constantly probe her character’s motives and choices that really stood out. “It was a wonderful exercise in understanding my own writing,” says Peters. “Kindness and gentle questioning will always lead to better writing.”
An excerpt from The Berry Pickers by Amanda Peters ©2023. Published by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.
When we got back, Mom was still sitting in the plastic chair, staring into the fire. It was almost time for supper but there was no sign of food. Mae grabbed me off Ben’s back and laid me down on an old blanket on the ground, my head at my mother’s feet.
“Don’t you worry, Joe,” Mom said. “She probably just wandered too far. Someone’ll find her. You just don’t worry now.” She reached down and ran her strong hands through my hair.
It was that time of day when the sun starts making room for the night and everything looks ghostly. Dad walked up to the campfire, but I couldn’t be quite sure if he was real or not until he spoke.
“I’m going into town to get the police. Good to have more people helping, and they might have more lights than we do. And she’s just a girl.” As if her age made a difference. Dad turned, got in the truck and drove off.
“He still has faith that they care,” Mom said, as we watched his tail lights disappear into the gloomy dark of dusk.
Half an hour later, he was back, one lone officer in one lone police car following the beat-up truck. The officer, shorter than Dad but just as skinny, sat in his car for what seemed to be forever. We all watched as he just sat there and jotted things in his notebook. Occasionally he’d look up to spy those of us gathered around the fire. He was too far away and it was too dark for me to see him clearly until he got out. Dad pointed to me, still lying at my mother’s feet. The officer came over and crouched down to talk to me.
“You see anything strange around here this afternoon, little fella?” I shook my head no. “You see your sister wander off into the woods? Down to the lake?” Again, I shook my head no. His breath was foul like onions and cabbage mixed together and left out in the warm sun too long. He stood up and straightened out his pants before he asked my mom and Mae the same questions. He looked at the people gathered around the fire, barely listening to anything anyone said, and Mae was getting testy.
“You just gonna ask the same stupid questions or you gonna help us find her?” she said.
Mom grabbed Mae’s hand to calm her down. The policeman didn’t even turn in her direction. I remember clearly how the firelight cast half of him in shadow like a villain in one of the comic books that I admired but could never buy.
He tapped his pad with his pencil. “Well, not much more I can do that hasn’t been done. You let us know when you find her. I’ll keep my notes, just in case.”
“You’re not going to help us?” Dad said.
“Sorry there”—he looked down at the pad of paper—“Lewis. I’m sure you’ll find her. Besides, nothing much we can do. She’s not been gone long enough, and you not being proper Maine citizens, and known transients. You understand.” He paused, waiting for Dad to agree. Dad crossed his arms over his chest, waiting. “And there are only three of us police officers, and we had a break-in down at the farm supply store a couple weeks back, so . . .”
He walked back to his car and started to climb in, when Dad grabbed him by the collar. The policeman’s hat toppled off his head and bounced off the car door, landing at Dad’s feet.
“She’s a little girl,” Dad said quietly.
The police officer regained his footing and stood between the car and the door, Dad’s hands still gripping his collar. “I would suggest that you take your hands off me. There are more of you here looking than I could bring. Now, let go.”
Dad let go and the police officer adjusted his clothes. He bent to pick up his hat and tapped it against the car door to get the dust off.
“If you were so concerned about the girl, you’d have taken better notice, I guess. Now, step back. I told you I would keep the notes in case we hear anything. You feel free to let me know when you find her.”
He crawled into the car, careful to not take his eyes off my dad. Dad was as tall and thin as a willow, but when he was mad, he could be scary. The car backed into a hollow place between the trees, turned, and headed down the dusty path back to Route 9. Dad picked up a large stone and threw it, busting a tail light. The car stopped for just a second before it moved on until the one remaining light disappeared altogether.
“You knew they were never going to help us, Lewis. You put too much faith in these people.” Mom sat down again, leaned back and stared up at the stars as she started to cry.
The Berry Pickers is available to purchase wherever you buy books starting April 4. On Friday, April 29th, join authors Amanda Peters and Lisa Moore for an online conversation hosted by the Toronto Public Library, where the two will discuss Amanda’s The Berry Pickers. Register here.