Evergreen: A novel

Evergreen: A novel

by Rebecca Rasmussen

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385350990
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/15/2014
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

REBECCA RASMUSSEN is the author of the novel The Bird Sisters. Her stories have appeared in or won prizes from TriQuarterly, Narrative Magazine, Glimmer Train, The Mid-American Review, among other journals. She was born and raised in the Midwest. Currently, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter and teaches English part-time at UCLA.

Read an Excerpt

1

Eveline LeMay came after the water. She arrived on a cool morning in early September, asleep in a rowboat without paddles as if she knew the river currents would carry her past the tamarack and black-spruce forest, around Bone Island, a fen, and a bog, all the way to Evergreen and her new husband, Emil, who was waiting for her on the rocky shore.

The flood had delayed Eveline’s trip north two months and forced her to travel by boat since the dirt roads had been washed away and no plans were made to restore them. Emil had sent word for her via the forest service to stay with her parents in Yellow Falls, a lumber town twenty miles south of Evergreen, until the water receded because he was living on the roof of their cabin, subsisting on whatever happened to float by. The newspapers blamed the flood on nature, but everyone knew the government had been building a dam to harness the power of the Snake and Owl Rivers in order to, in their words, bring light to all that was dark, but in everyone else’s: to build a paper mill and clear-cut the forests.

“Mein Liebe,” Emil said, and Eveline opened her gray eyes.

“I lost the paddles,” she said, sitting up in the rowboat, stiff from floating all night.

On either side of the river, a forest of towering white pines shaded the shore. When the wind blew, long green needles fell onto the water like rain.

Emil lifted her out of the boat as if she were a child and waved away a mosquito from her face. “My poor baby,” he said, kissing her. “But you’re here now. You’re home.”

For the first time in two days, Eveline felt warm again despite her thin cotton dress, which she chose because Emil said the daisy pattern reminded him of the meadows in Germany where he played as a boy. She’d pinned up her long wheat-colored hair into a bun and let a few strands fall loosely around her face. Until she fell asleep, she’d pinched her cheeks every few hours to give them the rosy color Emil admired when they first met.

“Lob der Jugend,” he’d said. In praise of youth.

Emil was ten years her senior, gray at the temples, which made him look both dignified and a little rueful. His shoulders were broad and strong from working outside, which belied the stiffness in his chest he called winter in the heart.

“They’re boots,” he said now, handing Eveline a pair of black rubber waders that rose to her thighs. “The country’s all mud.”

“And the cabin?” Eveline said, struggling with them.

“I stopped living on the roof three weeks ago,” Emil said. “They’re not like stockings. You won’t break them if you pull harder.”

Once she secured the waders, Eveline took Emil’s hand, and the two of them walked up the rocky riverbank into the woods, which were alive with the hum of mosquitoes and groaning tree trunks. Emil set down pine boards for her to walk on in the places where the mud gurgled and spit sulfur. Where he didn’t set down boards, the mud came up to her ankles and in one place her calves.

“At least the water came before the government did,” Emil said. He pointed to a stand of old-growth pine trees the flood had uprooted and tossed like matchsticks onto their sides. “It’ll make good firewood.”

“Do we have a fireplace?” Eveline said.

“A woodstove,” said Emil.

“Electricity?”

“A year or two yet. I’m working on running water.”

Eveline had agreed to move to Evergreen because she wanted to be wherever Emil was, and Emil wanted to open a taxidermy shop on the edge of the wilderness like his father and his father’s father back in the Black Forest. Eveline’s mother had yielded similarly when she was nineteen and agreed to marry Eveline’s father and live above the Laundromat despite her allergy to heavy detergents. Every afternoon for as long as Eveline could remember, her mother would sit in a spearmint-oil bath to clear her sinuses, but she’d always be ready to greet her father with a kiss when he came home from the lumberyard, which made Eveline confident about her decision to marry Emil and move to Evergreen.

Before Emil proposed to her, Eveline worked at Harvey Small’s, the only restaurant in Yellow Falls, serving plates of hamburgers to lumberjacks to relieve some of her family’s financial burdens. After her shifts, she’d go across the street to Lenora’s Fine Gowns, the place she’d met Emil, to brush against China silk and French chiffon, party dresses too fine for Northwoods parties. The dress shop was tucked between a live-bait stall and the Hunting Emporium, where camouflage jackets and buck knives hung from strands of twine in the front window. Eveline would circle the shop, reliving the moment when Emil had walked by, saw her twirling before a mirror, and was drawn to her side. After that, she’d go home to wash the scent of bacon fat out of her hair and freshen her skin with lemon juice.

Coming into the country meant Eveline no longer had to work in the restaurant, where children poured milk shakes onto the seats and stray dogs circled out back for bits of gristle, but it also meant she and Emil would have to eke out sustenance from the hard northern landscape and whatever supplies Emil had salvaged from the flood. Eveline was nervous about her instinct for survival, but she trusted Emil’s completely. Emil had survived war as a boy and yet wasn’t hardened. Eveline thought of his butterfly collection—the delicate purple emperor he gave her the day they met—and squeezed his hand. Around them great pines lay like injured soldiers, sap streaming from their bark like blood.

“I packed too many dresses,” Eveline said, surprised at how the modest silver band on her ring finger had made her lose sight of the place she was packing for. She’d tucked a pair of dancing shoes into her suitcase at the last minute.

“You won’t always have to wear waders,” Emil said.

There’s something else, Eveline thought, but couldn’t say in the middle of all this death.

Before Emil decided to move them north, they shared her childhood bedroom in the apartment above the Laundromat and had only twice been daring enough to move together as man and wife, but it had been enough for life to begin inside of her.

Her mother didn’t speak of her condition, but each morning she brought Eveline a cup of herbal tea with a spoonful of honey. She let out the seams of Eveline’s clothes and found an oversize winter coat for her at the secondhand shop.

“Mom?” Eveline had said the morning before she left for Evergreen, when her mother passed by the threshold of her bedroom door. But the question Eveline wanted to ask her mother she couldn’t find the tongue for, because even though her mother seemed cheerful enough and complained little, over the years her face had become weighed down by something Eveline recognized but didn’t yet understand.

Are you happy? Eveline had thought.

Emil let go of Eveline’s hand when they got to a clearing in the forest and the mud gave way to bright green moss, then switchgrass that rose to her thighs.

“It’s not much farther,” he said, tossing aside a dead weasel so Eveline wouldn’t have to step over it. “Everything’s been displaced.”

Eveline wondered if Emil meant perished. Sometimes he used words that meant something different than they did to Eveline. When he asked her to marry him, he’d said “in case we’re separated,” which Eveline took to mean so we won’t ever be separate.

The two walked through the thigh-high grass, over fallen branches that snapped beneath their feet and spongy earth that gave beneath them, Emil with a hand in his trouser pocket and the other wrapped around the handle of Eveline’s tweed suitcase.

Overhead the clouds lumped together until Eveline couldn’t discern their shapes individually anymore. The air smelled of wet earth. Oxeye daisies and milkweed thistle, which grew in the back lot outside her bedroom window in Yellow Falls, gradually took the place of the switchgrass and made Eveline feel more sure of herself. What a good spot for a garden in the spring, she thought. My first real garden. In place of the milk thistle, which scratched at her waders like fingernails, she imagined everything from pumpkins to malva flowers. Maybe even a row of walnut saplings, which would grow up with their child. When Eveline was a baby, her mother planted a forsythia shrub behind the Laundromat so Eveline would be the first one in town to glimpse spring in its bright yellow petals.

Eveline looked up at the clouds. “Do you think it’s going to rain today?”

“Only if you wish it to, my wife,” Emil said. “I’ve been practicing saying that.”

“The wife part or the lying part?”

Emil smiled. “Both.”

“Emil?” Eveline said, but before she could finish her thought the cabin rose out of the tangle of milk thistle in front of them like the prow of a ship on a wave.

For a brief stark moment, Eveline saw her future in the black water stains that licked the brown logs, in the boarded-up window Emil had yet to fix because he’d have to float a pane of glass twenty miles up the river. She saw it in the mud bubbling out from beneath the porch steps and the yellow liquid oozing like pus from the chinking between the logs.

And yet on the porch were two rocking chairs Emil had built and an evergreen wreath decorated with winterberries. A white-throated sparrow, what her father called a fortune bird, sat on the perch of a bright red birdhouse that hung from the eaves.

Emil set down her suitcase. “What is it?”

Eveline placed a hand on her stomach, a future that nudged her through the sunny material of her dress. “I’m pregnant.”

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Evergreen, the luminous new novel by Rebecca Rasmussen, acclaimed author of The Bird Sisters.

1. The book’s epigraph is a quote from José Ortega y Gasset: “Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.” How does this prove true for Eveline, Hux, and Naamah?

2. Eveline’s arrival in Evergreen reads almost like a fable: “Eveline LeMay came after the water. She arrived on a cool morning in early September, asleep in a rowboat without paddles as if she knew the river currents would carry her past the tamarack and black-spruce forest, around Bone Island, a fen, and a bog, all the way to Evergreen and her new husband, Emil, who was waiting for her on the rocky shore” (page 3). How does Rasmussen use language to create a real world where less-than-realistic things happen?

3. When Emil tells Eveline, “What you do isn’t who you are” (page 34), what does he mean? How does this develop into a theme of the novel?

4. Years apart, Eveline and Lulu become pregnant after being raped. Each makes a difficult decision. What do their choices tell us?

5. Emil, Eveline, and Hux all practice taxidermy for different reasons. How does the author develop this as a metaphor? What does Tuna, the bird, represent?

6. The cabin’s previous resident left behind a letter, which ends with a piece of advice: “When the time comes to let go, let go” (page 113). How does Eveline use this advice? Who else lets go over the course of the novel, and what do they release?

7. Part Two, set at the Hopewell Orphanage, is quite bleak. How does the author use language and imagery to make the horrors endured by Naamah tolerable to readers?

8. On page 123, the girls’ names are explained—nearly every girl’s first name is Mary, “ . . . as if Sister Cordelia didn’t want them to be told apart.” Naamah and Ethelina, though, have highly unusual names. How did Sister Cordelia identify these two infants as being different? Did their names somehow seal their fates?

9. Why does Cordelia choose Naamah to lead the girls in song

10. Abandonment is a theme throughout the novel, but becomes especially important in this section. How does Cordelia’s abandonment by her own mother connect to what happens at the orphanage?

11. Why does the Bible passage, “There is no fear in love” (page 165), prompt Naamah to leave? Does Cordelia love Naamah, as she insists later to Hux?

12. When Hux learns that Emil knew about Naamah, he blames him for doing nothing. How might things have played out if he had acted?

13. Why does meeting Gunther prompt Naamah to move inside Hux’s cabin?

14. When Naamah chooses to live with Gunther, Hux thinks, “Gunther had always been able to do everything—catch a bucket of fish, chop down a tree, milk a goat—twice as fast as Hux. He’d made a life out of tracking wild things, taming them with the barrel of his shotgun, and mounting them on his walls. Hux had made a life out of preserving what was dead. Of course Naamah would go to someone like him” (page 229). Why is she really drawn to Gunther?

15. Why does Naamah go to the Mosquito Net for the first time?

16. After giving birth, just before naming Racina, Naamah breaks the silver cross necklace. Why?

17. What makes Ethelina so important to Naamah? How does her death spur Naamah into making such a calamitous decision?

18. Is Gunther a good parent? Did you expect him to be?

19. How do Lulu’s coat, Ethelina’s hat, and Racina’s purple boots act as talismans to the wearers?

20. Encroaching modernity has negative connotations throughout the novel—the flood caused by the dam, Cullen’s connection to attempts to bring light to the forest, the misery of the logging camps. What is the meaning of this?

Interviews

Q: EVERGREEN's epigraph is a quote from Jose Ortega y Gassett, “Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.” How does this connection to place resonate throughout the novel?

A: As a person who has lived in eight different states so far in my life, I've had the fortunate experience of witnessing how place changes people. In Massachusetts, I used to snowshoe down my street. I was moodier then. After a long winter, there was nothing more enlivening than seeing the first magnolia blossoms in the spring. In Los Angeles, I'm a hundred feet from the 405. I'm so close I can give a traffic report. But the sun is always shining and the winds are always warm. I'm softer here. Less alone.

In EVERGREEN, the changes the characters go through are more pronounced than mine, perhaps because there are no modern conveniences to soften the transition when they move from an established town to the wilds of northern Minnesota in 1938. Electricity changes people. Running water. But so do swiftly moving rivers and old growth forests, night skies unmarred by city lights, industry. To my mind, this novel couldn't take place anywhere else in the world but Evergreen.

Q: Do you ever dream of running off and living in the wilderness yourself?

A: Oh, yes—ever since I was a girl and spent eight glorious summers at a rustic camp in northern Wisconsin. The lake was full of leeches, the cabins overrun with wolf spiders, and because nothing would ever dry there was a pervasive smell of mold. “L'eau de Camp,” my mother used to say. But it was also a magical place with towering pines and climax forests, frosty mornings and northern lights, a place where for the first time in my life I felt truly free. I learned how to build fires and navigate canoes through narrow sloughs. I learned how to swim and sail and shoot a rifle. I learned what I could do with my hands. What I could do with my heart. The northwoods is always with me when I sit down to write.

Q: Eveline, newly pregnant, moves into a small cabin in Minnesota with her taxidermist husband, Emil. How does she justify leaving her family, job, and hometown behind?

A: Eveline is young and inexperienced at the beginning of the novel. She's so newly married that she still gets a little thrill every time she says the words my husband. Emil is unlike any other man she's met in the northwoods. He's capable, but gentle. Determined, but kind. Other men try to woo her by leaving buckets of fish on her doorstep. Emil woos her with a butterfly. Even though she's frightened to leave her family, love is what brings Eveline to the wilderness. Love is what gets her through her first winter.

Q: Eveline's neighbor, Lulu, was “a tall, solid woman, made larger by her booming voice and the vigor of her coat.” How does this quirky woman become so important to Eveline? Even though they're such opposites, how do they ultimately save each other, over and over again?

A: When Lulu enters the novel, light enters with her. She's a woman who knows who she is and what she's worth. Eveline doesn't know these things yet. She's a new wife and mother. She's still figuring out if she even belongs in the wilderness. After surviving a difficult winter alone with Emil, Lulu is a welcome guest the day she comes striding up to their cabin wearing a pair of men's trousers and a ratty old fur coat. Lulu is feisty from the start. Unlike Eveline, she always says what she thinks. She's tougher than any of the men in Evergreen put together. She's got a heart the size of the forest.

The women become like sisters. They argue with each other. They laugh at each other. They save each other over and over again no matter what it costs them. In many ways, they are the true soul mates of the novel.

Q: Have you ever known a Lulu in your life?

A: Lulu is the friend I always wish I had. The sister. I loved her from the moment she marched onto my computer screen and showed me her hairy ankle and her big northwoods heart. She's a little bit of you, a little bit of me, a little bit of all of us.

Q: Hopewell Orphanage is a terrifying place ruled by a fearsome nun, Sister Cordelia. What was your inspiration for this character and place? Why did you feel that Naamah needed to grow up there?

A: Sadly, my inspiration for the orphanage in the novel was the way many—too many—orphans were treated at orphanages in both the US and abroad during the first half of the twentieth century. While I was working on this section, I read hundreds of heartbreaking accounts of men and women who'd grown up in places ruled by cruel nuns and priests and were still trying to survive those early experiences in their adult lives. In the accounts, so many of them were struggling to find happiness, peace, but couldn't because of the abuse they suffered, often in the name of God. Naamah is one of these people. In the novel, she wants to be loved so much, and I wanted so much to give that to her.

Q: When Naamah, as an orphan at Hopewell Orphanage, sees a mother and daughter in town, she thinks, “The mother kissed the girl's forehead in a way Naamah had always dreamed of being kissed. First by her mother, then by any mother, then anyone.” How does this passage explain so much about Naamah's character?

A: Naamah covets love, but she doesn't understand it. Because of her experience with Sister Cordelia, who does love her in her own broken way, Naamah often puts herself in demeaning situations as an adult because she doesn't have a sense of her real worth, only the one Sister Cordelia has shown her. She'll let a roughneck man at a bar use her terribly, for instance, but at the same time be thinking of the blanket her mother left her with at the orphanage—the one with little ducks on it, the name Hux stitched into the corner.

Q: Even though the women in EVERGREEN are fiercely loyal to each other, two moms abandon their daughters in spite—or maybe because—of their love for them. What does EVERGREEN teach us about the struggle between committing and letting go?

A: The women in EVERGREEN are the heart of this novel—almost everything that happens depends on them. It's an enormous weight to have to bear and for the most part they bear it gracefully, with great love and compassion. The women in EVERGREEN are survivors. They've learned, oftentimes through events beyond their control, when to hold on with all they've got and when to let go. They've taught me a great many lessons, one of which is this: the world is still a hard place for women, but we are its lifeblood, we keep not giving up.

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Evergreen: A novel 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
SharonChance More than 1 year ago
I was so thrilled to hear of Rebecca Rasmussen's second novel, and was privileged to receive a review copy. I knew from her debut novel, "The Bird Sisters," that I enjoyed Rebecca's writing, but I wasn't prepared for the wonderful treat of reading "Evergreen." Rebecca once again brings her skillful style of storytelling to a tale that includes a stirring romance, unforgettable and loyal friendships, and a tragedy full of secrets, lies, and regrets. Set in the early wilderness of Minnesota, this story captures the untamed countryside and the strong and resilient people who set out to tame it. Rebecca's cast of characters are intriguing and personable - I especially loved Lulu, the eccentric but loveable gal who everyone needs as a friend! And I so admired both Eveline and her daughter Naamah for their strength and bravery as they work so hard to find a flittering of happiness and joy in their lives. This is just a magnificent story. If you are looking for a read that will stay with you long after you finished the book, then "Evergreen" is the one for you. I'm absolutely putting this title in my top books of the year!
SiobhanMFallon More than 1 year ago
Rebecca Rasmussen proves her luminous talent once again in her second novel, Evergreen. The story opens with a sleeping girl in a rowboat without paddles, floating down a river that has flooded its bank. This pretty image disguises the destructive passion at its root: earth and trees are violently upturned on both sides of the river, the government’s greed built the dam behind the flood, Eveline’s attempt to row her way to her new husband is dangerous and it’s a miracle he actually finds her. Such is the careful balance that Rasmussen manages to strike throughout: regret with constancy, betrayal with loyalty, rejection with rescue. This tale spans generations, offering a glimpse of an America caught between unruly logging camps, insular small towns, and those who want nothing more but to be left alone to dwell in the forest. Here’s one of my favorite passages, you can see Rasmussen’s resonating, multi-leveled prose, how every word snaps together perfectly: “The terrifying stillness of that moment, the way the wind and snow stopped blowing, the way even the leaves stopped falling from the trees, made Eveline realize what she’s always known. Her husband was wrong about preservation. You couldn’t justify taking a life because it fit squarely into three paper rules. You couldn’t justify taking a life even if it mean saving your own. All you could do was live with what you’d done. What you were going to do.”
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a beautiful book that begins with a young couple setting off in the wilderness of Minnesota. It follows three generations of families in this places, which eventually comes to be known as Evergreen. I don't want to write too much more because I don't want to give anything away. The writing is just stunning! As is the story! My book club will be reading it next month. I can't wait to discuss.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book so much!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The premise was good but the execution was poor. I kept waiting for it to get better then I kept waiting for it to be over.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A new favorite.....