River Thieves

riverthievesRiver Thieves
by Michael Crummey
2001/352 pages
rating 9 / historical fiction

I read Michael Crummey’s more recent work,  Galore (2012), last year and thoroughly enjoyed it,  so when another group selected River Thieves, his first novel,   for discussion I was delighted.

The setting is still Newfoundland (Crummey is from St. Johns) , but in the early days of the  19th century rather than the early 20th.   The  history is loosely accurate as far as I can tell  –  (I’ve provided links to some people/places) but Crummey notes that he has taken liberties with the facts.   There is  an introductory epigraph to give  indication as to the historical basis:

“Various versions of this event have appeared from time to time in our histories and other publications, but as numerous descrepancies characterize these accounts, I prefer to give the story as I had it from the lips of the late John Peyton, J.P. of Twillingate, himself the actual captor of the Beothuk woman. –
James P. Howley, The Beothuks or Red Indians, published 1915

Specifically see: http://www.mun.ca/rels/native/beothuk/beo2gifs/texts/HOW19a.html#page91

Following that there is a very short but beautiful piece about the old Indian names of the area.   Finally, still prior to Chapter 1,  there is a prologue of sorts,  entitled “The Lake: March month, 1819,”  in which a native woman with a newborn ends up going with a

A Beothuk settlement on the Exploits River, sketch by John Cartwright, circa 1768

A Beothuk settlement on the Exploits River, sketch by John Cartwright, circa 1768

white man,  leaving her husband,  her child and the Lake – under pressure of gunfire.  This is the incident the epilogue refers to and it’s the incident around which the plot revolves.

Then starts the Newfoundland word for Part 1:  “Hag”  or “old Hag” –  a nightmare.  And finally,  Part 1,  Chapter 1 – 1810 – prior to the “incident.”

Finally getting into the main narrative,  the characters are pretty simple.  There’s John Peyton and his father,   John Senior,   along with Cassie who is their long-term housekeeper.   Peyton and Senior are leaving on an expedition,  but Senior is staying home this time and then it gets complicated because the story is told in a series of nested flashbacks told by different characters.  Who goes where when,  is a bit fuzzy for quite awhile.   And so many of the early scenes are the same – voyaging out in the wilds, up the River Exploits,  to hunt, fish, trap,  chase Indians (for one reason or another) or just travel somewhere.

Meanwhile,  and not too far away aboard the HMS Adonis,  the English Governor Duckworth and Lieutenant David Buchan discuss the  the Beothuk native question  and how to achieve peace.  Also from the Great Wiki:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beothuk_people  .   Buchan will play a significant role in the novel as he is the main investigator of “the incident.”

So now comes the investigation – Part 2 – where the characters of  Cassie,  Mary,  Buchan, Richmond,  and Miller are introduced,  along with Reilly and his Micmac wife, Annie Boss,  there may be more.   These men,  from various backgrounds,  feel plagued by the Red Indians who in turn feel cheated by them.  The natives in this case were resolutely anti-English settlers and did what they could to drive them out.    Cassie is a complex character unto herself.

It wasn’t until about 1/3 to 1/2 way through that I got interested and then I started getting to really know the male characters and maintain an interest in them.   Maybe it was because I was ill this week – I don’t know.   It might be worth rereading at least the first 1/3.

A bit more background from:

A teenage girl named Shawnadithit (also spelled Shanawdithit) was probably the last beot2Beothuk. Starving and alone, Shawnadithit and two female relatives surrendered to the British. The other Beothuk women died, but Shawnadithit lived for six years as an English slave known as “Nancy,” drawing pictures and telling stories of her lost tribe. Shawnadithit’s aunt Demasduit, who died several years earlier, had a more tragic story. Demasduit had just given birth when the British raided her village, and her husband, the Red Indian chief, was killed trying to protect her from capture. Her baby was left behind, and by the time she learned enough English to explain this to the British, the infant had starved to death and Demasduit was fatally ill with tuberculosis. In the face of these hardships, the charm and gentle demeanor of Demasduit and Shawnadithit startled white Newfoundlanders, forcing them to rethink some of their attitudes towards ‘savages.’ Read more about Shawnadithit and Demasduit.

Also see:

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