FICTIONIn an icy rural setting in northern Minnesota, several women struggle with the demands of motherhood.
Rebecca Rasmussen sets her second novel, “Evergreen,” in the North Woods of Minnesota. The town of Evergreen is a landscape of total isolation, occasionally described in violent tones — “great pines lay like injured soldiers, sap streaming from their bark like blood” — a site of assault and loneliness, but also of friendship and rescue. Rasmussen portrays several companionable marriages, but she seems most intrigued by alliances based on proximity, exploring the beauty — indeed, the necessity — of neighbors.
In 1934, newlyweds Emil and Eveline make their home in a cabin another couple have left behind. When Emil, a taxidermist, is called to his native Germany, he suggests that Eveline and their infant son return to the town where her parents live. Eveline decides to stay in the country, encouraged by a newfound friendship with neighbor Lulu Runk, a woman so self-sufficient she declines an offer of lunch because she carries a boiled egg in the pocket of her coat.
After a man appears at Eveline’s door and assaults her, she discovers that she is pregnant once again — this time, against her will and during her husband’s absence. She leaves her daughter at the gates of nearby Hopewell Orphanage. Rasmussen is careful not to position Eveline’s suffering as the consequence of her interest in independence; rather, it is a reminder of how frequently women are subjected to such violence. (Lulu’s son, Gunther, is also a product of sexual assault.) Although Lulu and Eveline are married to loyal husbands, it is their friendship — fishing, drinking, smoking and grieving — that most beautifully depicts intimacy. Their sons, Hux and Gunther, grow into a friendship that verges, in adulthood, on dependency.
Eveline’s daughter, Naamah, survives 14 years at Hopewell Orphanage before escaping to a logging camp, where she becomes a prostitute. Hux eventually rescues his sister, who proceeds to marry Gunther, bear a daughter and walk away from her. Naamah’s treatment at the hands of abusive nun Sister Cordelia is seemingly meant to explain her struggles with motherhood. At times Sister Cordelia, marked by warts and armed with rulers, reads as a bit of a caricature.
The story holds three mothers who choose to leave their children: Lulu’s mother, mentioned only briefly; Eveline, who brings Naamah to Hopewell’s gate, and Naamah herself, who places Racina in a tree. The story never suggests that such actions are condonable — readers bear witness to the lasting effects of abandonment — but Rasmussen crafts a world in which such matters are too complicated for quick dismissal or conclusion.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy was named a 2014-16 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Her work has appeared in Narrative, Glimmer Train, SLICE and elsewhere.