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River Thievesby Michael Crummey
Synopses & Reviews
In elegant, sensual prose, Michael Crummey crafts a haunting tale set in Newfoundland at the turn of the nineteenth century. A richly imagined story about love, loss and the heartbreaking compromises — both personal and political — that undermine lives, River Thieves is a masterful debut novel. To be published in Canada and the United States, it joins a wave of classic literature from eastern Canada, including the works of Alistair MacLeod, Wayne Johnston and David Adams Richards, while resonating at times with the spirit of Charles Fraziers Cold Mountain and Cormac McCarthys Border Trilogy.
British naval officer David Buchan arrives on the Bay of Exploits in 1810 with orders to establish friendly contact with the elusive Beothuk, the aboriginal inhabitants known as “Red Indians” who have been driven almost to extinction. Aware that the success of his mission rests on the support of local white settlers, Buchan approaches the most influential among them, the Peytons, for assistance, and enters a shadowy world of allegiances and deep grudges. His closest ally, the young John Peyton Jr., maintains an uneasy balance between duty to his father — a powerful landowner with a reputation as a ruthless persecutor of the Beothuk - and his troubled conscience. Cassie Jure, the self-reliant, educated and secretive woman who keeps the family house, walks a precarious line of her own between the unspoken but obvious hopes of the younger Peyton, her loyalty to John Senior, and a determination to maintain her independence. When Buchan's peace expedition goes horribly awry, the rift between father and son deepens.
With a poetic eye and a gift for storytelling, Crummey vividly depicts the stark Newfoundland backcountry. He shows the agonies of the men toiling towards the caribou slaughtering yards of the Beothuk; of coming upon the terrible beauty of Red Indian Lake, its frozen valley lit up by the sunset like “a cathedral lit with candles”; then retreating through rotten ice that slices at clothing and skin as they flee the disaster. He breathes life into the rich vernacular of the time and place, and with colourful detail brings us intimately into a world of haying and spruce beer, of seal meat and beaver pelts: a world where the first governor of Newfoundland to die in office is sent back to England preserved in “a large puncheon of rum”.
Years later, when the Peytons second expedition to the Beothuks' winter camp leads to the kidnapping of an Indian woman and a murder, Buchan returns to investigate. As the officer attempts to uncover what really happened on Red Indian Lake, the delicate web of allegiance, obligation and debt that holds together the Peyton household and the community of settlers on the northeast shore slowly unravels. The interwoven histories of English and French, Mikmaq and Beothuk, are slowly unearthed, as the story culminates with a growing sense of loss — the characters private regrets echoed in the tragic loss of an entire people. An enthralling story of passion and suspense, River Thieves captures both the vast sweep of history and the intimate lives of a deeply emotional and complex cast of characters caught in its wake.
Many historical events which provided inspiration for the novel took place around where Crummey grew up. There was a family of Peytons in the Bay of Exploits who were intimately involved in the fate of the Beothuk, John the Elder known as a ‘great Indian killer and his son, John the Younger, attempting to establish friendly contact. “What set of circumstances would account for this difference?” asked Crummey. “How would the two men relate to one another? What would the motivations be for their particular actions? As soon as a writer begins answering these sorts of questions in any definitive way, the writing becomes fiction.” Though faithful to historical record in many details, he imagined ways in which the characters might participate more fully in each others story. “Of course a different writer, or even myself at a different time in my life, would have imagined a different world of characters and events, a radically different picture.”
About the Author
Michael Crummey was born in Buchans, a mining town in the interior of Newfoundland ("as far from the salt water as you can get and still be in Newfoundland"), second of four boys; he grew up there and in Wabush, another mining town near the Quebec border of Labrador. After completing a BA in English at Memorial University in St. John's, he moved to Kingston, Ontario to pursue graduate work but dropped out before finishing his Ph. D. He has taught ESL in China and worked at the International Day of Solidarity with the People of Guatemala. Now the author of three books of poetry and a book of short stories as well as a novel, he lives in St. Johns, Newfoundland. His stories and poems have appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies, including twice in the League of Canadian Poets annual contest anthology.
Crummey “came out of the poetry closet” in 1986 when he entered and won the Gregory J. Power Poetry Contest at Memorial; the $500 award gave him the “mistaken impression there was money to be made in poetry”. In 1994 he won the inaugural Bronwen Wallace Award for Poetry, and his first book of poems was published two years later. Arguments with Gravity, which travels from pre-Confederation Newfoundland to contemporary Central America, won the Writer's Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award for Poetry. His second collection, Hard Light, a retelling of his fathers stories of outport Newfoundland and the Labrador fishery of half a century ago, conjures a world of hard work and heavy weather, shot through with humour, endurance and love; in its imagery and sensibility it compares to Michael Turners poems about a British Columbia salmon cannery in Company Town. Crummeys latest collection, published in 2001, is Emergency Roadside Assistance.
In 1994, his first published fiction was a runner up in the 1994 Prism International Short Fiction Contest, and a story was selected for the Journey Prize Anthology in 1998. Flesh & Blood, his first collection of stories, appeared the same year. Set in Black Rock, a Newfoundland mining community which suffers a fatal explosion, it mixes the miraculous and the mundane: characters drown and come back to life, find their true loves in blinding snowstorms, and receive visitations from angels. Some readers saw it as a novel told in stories; though Crummey originally had no intention of writing an entire book set in Black Rock, the collection became a patchwork quilt held together by place and the vocation of its characters, and bound by the authors preoccupations: complex relationships between siblings and parents, and love, “that impractical, infuriating, enduring thing that makes a family so impractical, infuriating and enduring”.
Like David Adams Richards, who writes about contemporary rural New Brunswick, his depiction of harsh lives is illumined by compassion and rich language. His poetry has been described as generous, genuine, rich and warm, with some form of grace always present to redeem whatever hardships his characters endure. Both lyrical and political, Crummey shows the inevitability of loss and suffering in our lives without letting us lose sight of whats worth loving, holding onto and fighting for.
Crummey claims that for a writer, hes a “fairly stereotypical guy”. “Beer counts as a meal on weekends… I planned my holidays this year around the World Cup schedule. My emotions and I are barely on speaking terms… Poetry is the one place I can, honestly and with something approaching clarity, acknowledge my love for family, for friends and lovers, for the world I live in… I'm not a person to speak much about emotion, but I'd say this ‘love is the best of who I am… The poetry reveals more about me than I'm comfortable expressing in any other fashion.
“There are many things I think about when I'm writing: the music of the words, the pacing of a poem, form and structure… But regardless of the increasing importance I place on these things, they're just tools to help me speak from a place that would otherwise remain pretty much closed to the world.”
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