River Thieves, by Michael Crummey. Pub 2001
Michael Crummey is a Newfoundland writer (funny how that seems more correct than to say Canadian writer) whose work is consistently terrific – creative, surprising, with exceptionally clear characters and evocative language. All of his stories have a historical basis, but he is consistent and clear in his acknowledgement and warning to readers that the novels are fictional and works of imagination. His excellent treatise on historical fiction – Most of What Follows is True – is a masterful piece about the dangers of treating fiction as fact, and the responsibilities of both readers and writers to be wary of the dangers.
River Thieves tells of various people and happenings on the Northeast coast of Newfoundland between 1810-1820. Throughout this time, the inhabitants, with some support and encouragement from the powers-that-be (i.e. the English), take several expeditions up the (aptly named) Exploits River for deliberate encounters of various purposes with the Beothuk peoples. As one would expect (and as is well documented in the history of Newfoundland and of the Beothuk), none of these encounters were pleasant or without tragic incident. The violent acts aside, the revelations of past actions and lives, as well as those of each individual’s true character – through their actions, allegiances, and convictions – bring a reckoning to each and upend the fragile community irrevocably. By the end of the novel’s ten-year trajectory (with various flashbacks as far back as the 1760’s), no one’s life is left intact.
At the heart of the novel is the as-true-as-can-possibly-be-known story of Demasduit (aka Mary March), a Beothuk woman kidnapped from her people and kept with the English on the coast and into St. John’s. Her brief existence ended with death from tuberculosis less than a year after her abduction. In a strange, poignant act of reconciliation, her abductors returned her body to lands of her people so that she would rest-in-peace with the remains of her husband and child (both of whom died during her kidnapping). Crummey uses this story as the framework for his imagination, weaving lives, backstories, and connections between the settlers and the officials – the historical figures about which at least something is known. Interestingly, as nothing is or could be known about Demasduit – there is no record other than of her interactions during her time with the English, and since no one understood her language there was no way to even know about her past or her thoughts – Crummey leaves her as mostly inscrutable. I found his lack of made-up descriptions of her or her people to be highly respectful and appropriate. For the English, about whom we know so much more, hardly one comes out of the story looking good; they are all shameful in some way for the happenings of that time, and not just with the benefit of today’s perspective. Perhaps that is Crummey’s subtle way of passing judgement on the past – yes, the settlers may not have known the Beothuk ways, and yes, they had all their own hardships, but neither of those excuse what would be considered unkind and cruel behaviour in any circumstances.
I also love Crummey’s use of Newfoundland language in his stories. Living with that language at home has taught me many of these quirky words and phrases that, like the odd Gaelic (dreich) or German (schadenfreude), are just perfect for some circumstances. For example, when someone crouches down to hide behind something, that’s “to coopy down”. A damp/foggy but warm day is described as “mauzy”. I think I might find these terms and the language more exotic were it not for my daily exposure to it at home.
With this book, I’ve now read all of Crummey’s novels, none of which was disappointing – quite the opposite. I’ve also read some of his non-fiction and poetry, and in my tsundoku is his short story collection. So, I think I’m a super-fan.
Fate: I’m unlikely to re-read this book, at least not for a while, so it will go on to another reader.
1 – a book with a murder in it
7 – an author’s debut novel
13 – a book set someplace I’ve never been
33 – a book by a Canadian author