He said, “It’s sometimes the simplest explanation is closest to the truth.” – from River Thieves
The Beothuk “Red” Indians were the aboriginal people of the island of Newfoundland. With the introduction of both French and English settlements, the Beothuk found themselves isolated and being squeezed out of their land, especially their access to fishing and hunting grounds. They were eventually reduced to a small refugee population living along the Exploits River and ultimately the Beothuk became extinct, with the last known Indian dying in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1829. It is this little known story of an aboriginal people which is the backbone of Michael Crummey’s novel, River Thieves. Inspired by the Beothuks and a well known English fisherman and hunter by the name of John Peyton (who was reputed to be brutal in his persecution of the Beothuk), Crummey has crafted a novel rich in the history of Newfoundland.
Set in the early part of the nineteenth century, River Thieves opens with naval officer David Buchan arriving in the Bay of Exploits on orders to establish friendly contact with the “Red Indians.” But he cannot do so without the assistance of the locals – a rough, independent group of trappers and fisherman who live in small cabins along the coast and the Exploits River. John Peyton Sr. is living with his son, John Jr., and a young woman named Cassie Jure who he has employed as a house servant and tutor for his son. He is a surly man who has a strong reputation for not tolerating the ongoing thefts perpetrated by the aboriginal peoples…and it is he who David Buchan approaches for help. But there are many secrets in this small community – allegiances and alliances, old recriminations, buried crimes, and relationships which are not always as they seem.
Crummey advances his novel through the eyes of the characters who include both Peytons, the shadowed Cassie, an Irishman with a questionable past and his native wife, and a captured Indian woman by the name of Mary. The harsh environs of Newfoundland feels like another character in this novel about love, loss, and regret.
The theme of regret is strong … all the characters make decisions at some point which cause them to regret their actions. Even John Peyton Sr., who is perhaps the character who is hardest to like, finds himself regretting his behavior toward the Indians. It is this theme of regret which makes this novel a bit melancholy. And perhaps that is appropriate since it is a book which explores the historical atrocity of an extermination of a people.
Crummey uses language and the naming of things as a way of defining the contrast between the native culture and that of the English colonists. And ultimately to symbolize the loss of an entire people. Perhaps the most poignant and poetic part of the book is in the prelude:
Whashwitt, bear; Kosweet, caribou; Dogajavick, fox. Shabothoobet, trap. The vocabularies a kind of taxidermy, words that were once muscle and sinew preserved in these single wooden postures. Three hundred nouns, a handful of unconjugated verbs, to kiss, to run, to fall, to kill. At the edge of a story that circles and circles their own death, they stand dumbly pointing. Only the land is still there. – from River Thieves.
I read Crummey’s amazing novel, Galore, in 2011 and it made my short list of best books read that year (read my review). Although I liked that novel a bit more than this one, River Thieves did not disappoint me. Crummey’s eye to detail, his terrific characters, and his ability to tell a story that captures place and history had me engrossed in this novel. Readers who love historical fiction will want to pick up a copy of this book.
River Thieves (2001) became a Canadian bestseller, winning the Thomas Head Raddall Award, the Winterset Award for Excellence in Newfoundland Writing, and the Atlantic Independent Booksellers’ Choice Award. It was also shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Books in Canada First Novel Award, and was long-listed for the IMPAC Award.