As dark and foggy as the Pacific Northwest woods in February, debut novelist Melissa Anne Peterson’s “Vera Violet” (out Feb. 4 via Counterpoint) brings the reader into the world of Vera Violet O’Neel, a child of a rural Washington town in which resilience against poverty characterizes the lives of its inhabitants. The book moves around in time to unspool the reasons why Vera finds herself desperate and grieving in St. Louis after a relentless series of events involving her family, friends and hometown.
Vera claims an identity as a born fighter. As a child, she fights with the boy she will grow up to love, Jimmy James. As an adult, she fights with herself to understand, embrace and survive the circumstances of her youth.
“Us Cota [Street] kids were somewhere in between childhood and adult knowledge,” Peterson writes. “Something ugly that nobody wanted to see or know about.” Even as their lives grow increasingly bleaker with the rise of drug abuse, the inevitable realization that lack of opportunity is a self-perpetuating cycle, and the steadily increasing death toll of families and friends, Vera clings to love — “Love that changes small worlds completely.”
Driven by a longing for imprisoned Jimmy James and a wild grief, Vera leaves the town of David to take her fight elsewhere, taking a job at an elementary school with mostly Black students. The ways in which race and poverty interact are touched on throughout the book; in David, where fishing is a tourist industry, Peterson writes about the exploitation of the resources of indigenous Americans. The tourists “held the large fish by the gills and the other tourists took pictures. … They didn’t care what the spawning salmon tasted like. They didn’t care how poor or small the rez was.” Vera feels a sense of solidarity between poor rural people across racial lines. But white supremacy plays out in disturbing ways across class lines, too. One of the Cota kids shoots a Mexican farmworker while high. Another beats Vera’s brother for dating a Black woman. Many of the Cota kids are neo-Nazis; they are quiet about it, but it touches everyone in ways Vera learns she cannot escape.
And the markings of white supremacy are on Vera and her voyeuristic white gaze, too. Peterson writes of Vera’s experience listening to her students’ stories: “I confiscated their words hungrily. I coaxed them to share more. Their eyes grew round with excitement … I imagined their situations.” She describes the stares from her favorite student, Diamond, as “a mesmerizing, painful experience.” This is troubling — vague, with no concrete detail about who these children are, and fraught with the power inherent to whiteness. While realistic, it’s unclear whether the author intends for the reader to see this as problematic.
“Vera Violet” is poetic in its description of how capitalist society fails the poor: “Cota kids were toughest on Cota Street. And rich kids were toughest in boardrooms and courtrooms and everywhere else that mattered.” The fights Vera carries with her are plentiful and bloody, but there is a kind of light shaft through the rafters of her narration. “I could gauge my spirit clearly — it had been roaming transparently in angry tempests,” Peterson writes. “I was a wild mustang stabbing at the future with fierce forelegs.”
The sense of place in the novel is palpable, the treatment of its characters empathetic and complex. Violence and grief saturate the forest of these words. The mosaic of Vera’s world is dark, but so is capitalism, which facilitates poverty and oppression. “Vera Violet” is a compelling read from a potent new voice.
“Vera Violet” by Melissa Anne Peterson, Feb. 4 via Counterpoint, 256 pp., $16.95
Author appearance: Melissa Anne Peterson will read from “Vera Violet” at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 6, at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; 206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com