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River Thieves: A Novel Hardcover – June 19, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

2002 in Canada First Novel Award Shortlist: In River Thieves, his first novel, poet and short-story writer Michael Crummey reaches far into Newfoundland's past to tell one of the colony's most tragic stories: the extermination of the Beothuk people. Through the lives and reminiscences of some of the colony's most prominent European residents--David Buchan, a naval explorer and idealist who attempts to bring the isolated Beothuks into productive contact with the British Empire; John Peyton Jr., the obedient son of a relentlessly patriarchal local trader; Cassie Jure, John Peyton Sr.'s literate, aloof housekeeper; and Joseph Reilly, a transported Irish thief and a genuinely decent trapper--Crummey recounts a halfhearted attempt, foiled by the colony's petty tensions, to save the Beothuks.

River Thieves is an oddly meandering novel, and this is its greatest appeal. Rather than offering a grisly, guilt-ridden adventure story that rushes from its suitably portentous beginning to its inevitably sombre end, Crummey works with a meandering sort of history, one that has to go over the same events a few times before they begin to give up their secrets, temporarily leaving his readers as disoriented as his benighted characters. The book's real heart--the Beothuks--never becomes fully articulate; the Beothuks remain buried on the shore, or encamped among the snows of Red Indian Lake. Anyone who wants this kind of story to come equipped with heroes and, perhaps, even answers, should turn to Rudy Wiebe, but Crummey's labyrinthine approach has its own distinct appeal. --Jack Illingworth

From Publishers Weekly

Trudging across the same harsh, icy fictional terrain that's fired the imagination of such writers as William Vollman, Andrea Barrett and Wayne Johnston, Crummey, an award-winning poet (Arguments with Gravity), has produced a poetic but ponderous tale of the colonization of Newfoundland and the last days of its Beothuk Indians. As the novel opens in 1810, grim family patriarch and homesteader John Senior (his face looks "hard enough to stop an axe") has kept up a hostile standoff with the Beothuk for years. But John Senior's blood feud with the Indians doesn't sit well with his idealistic son, John, with his spirited housekeeper, Cassie, or with David Buchan, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy who organizes a peacekeeping expedition to the Indian territories. When the mission goes awry and two soldiers are left headless in the snow, John Senior and the settlers set out to exact their revenge on the natives. Fitting for a book about history and the mapping of a lost world, Crummey's story is shaped by the vagaries of memory, perpetually circling back on itself to fill in narrative and historical details. And as is sometimes typical of a first novel by a seasoned poet, Crummey's story struggles to maintain momentum, dilating at length on the meaning and limitations of language. Each Beothuk word that survives, he writes, "has the heft of a museum artifact." The same might be said of Crummey's prose ("Fat dripped into the fire, the smell of it darkening the air like a bruise") and his characters' stilted behavior, which gives rise to a panorama of Newfoundland history and mythology as carefully composed but as lifeless as a dusty museum diorama.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition edition (June 19, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618145311
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618145317
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,011,765 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Michael Crummey is a poet and storyteller and the author of several critically acclaimed novels. His most recent book, Galore, won the Commonwealth Prize for Canada. He lives in St. John's, Newfoundland.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Charlotte Vale-Allen VINE VOICE on August 23, 2002
Format: Hardcover
The poet in Crummey is very much in evidence throughout this book. His prose (which makes use here of arcane words and expressions unique to Newfoundland, as well as some of the surviving nouns of the Beothuk language) is as strong and often bleak as the island itself in his narrative of the early 18th century inhabitants and their violent relationship with the (literally) red indians, the Beothuk.
Fact and fiction are seamlessly woven into a fascinating study of the bleak beauty of the place and the difficulties of the trapping/fishing lives of the residents--most of whom have found their way to the island from Great Britain. These "newcomers" are at great odds with the indigenous peoples: the Mi'kmaqs and the Beothuks; and the Mi'kmaqs consider themselves to be far superior to the Red Indians. The eternal pecking order.
What makes this book so fascinating, aside from its fully fleshed, very human cast of characters and the neverending labor of their daily lives (as well as the wretched weather), is the decimation and, ultimately, the complete eradication of the Beothuks. From the modern perspective, genocide is an ongoing horror. But for those arriving on foreign, North American shores, it was a matter of killing to stake a claim to the land, killing out of fear or contempt, but killing and killing until those with the most legitimate claim simply ceased to exist.
In dealing with many perspectives, the author gives us an insightful view of the rationales operating for every one of the characters in this book. It's a tour de force of collective viewpoints woven together to form an historical tapestry.
Beautifully written by a writer with great feeling for his characters and for history, wrenching and sad, River Thieves is a splendid book.
Most highly recommended.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By taking a rest HALL OF FAME on August 14, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Whether real or imagined I seem to be reading more work by writers and stories about Newfoundland. This is the first novel by Michael Crummey and, "River Thieves", is a very strong debut. The book has been compared to, "Cold Mountain", that I have not read, and to, "In The Fall", which I very much enjoyed. This work is not as sweeping a story as Jeffrey Lent's first book, however if you enjoy his writing you will enjoy this tale as well.
This story takes place primarily in the very early 19th Century although there are references to years that bracket the story. The atmosphere I take to be absolutely on point, as the author was borne and continues to live in the same settings on which his book takes place. This leap of faith is difficult to make when the reader has never been to the locale of the book, but Michael Crummey makes the presumption effortless.
The story is ostensibly about the demise of the, "Red Indians", or "The Beothuk". The reasons for the near extinction of these people is the result of the same effects felt throughout the Americas that settlers from Europe either brought with them, or practiced, disease or their desire to take the native population's land. Had the author restricted himself to this review of history, the book would have been too familiar. Instead the author gets deeply involved with a variety of players, and by sharing their stories reveals the fate of the Beothuk as well.
Included are settlers, criminals from England that have been transported, as well as the government officials that were the rule of law. The author also departs from attitudes and the people who hold and act on them. Governments have not been traditionally sympathetic to the indigenous people they found on new lands they claimed for King/Queen and country, Crummey changes that.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 20, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I'm fascinated by Native American history, particularly that of the Beothuk people. I bought this book thinking that it would be a pretty straightforward novelization of the Beothuk, and was pleased to discover that it was a real page-turner. The characters were interesting and the landscapes well drawn. I would recommend it to fiction readers and scholars of Native American (or Native Canadian, I suppose) history.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By trainreader on March 27, 2005
Format: Paperback
In "River Thieves," which is set in the early nineteenth century, English and Irish settlers struggle to make a life in cold, harsh Newfoundland as trappers, fisherman, and other physically taxing jobs. Various encounters with the Beothuk (a/k/a "Red Indians" -- they apply red ochre to their skin) end tragically even though the expeditions start off as well-intentioned. Nearly all of the principles have led difficult lives, which reflect the extreme conditions under which they live.

In many ways, Michael Crummey has written an extraordinarily rich novel, which jumps around in time, compelling the reader to give his or her full concentration. Additionally, Crummey displays impressive knowledge concerning trapping and fishing skills, and the lives of the Newfoundland settlers and natives. He also focuses on detail, for instance, the influences of liquor, diseases, and destructive fire which all have the power to destroy individuals and their families (Crummey also covers incest, rape, and a dangerous abortion).

The book is very disturbing in its portrayal of 19th Century barbarism, which is not only directed against the Indians. Crummey, for example, devotes pages to the brutal methods of dealing with petty criminals in England. While reading the book, I could not help but become more appreciative of living in the twenty first century, even with all its problems.

I eagerly await Crummey's next novel, which let's hope, will be somewhat less depressing.
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