2002 Amazon.com/Books 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.
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