River Thieves

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 Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Cormac McCarthy’s 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, Mi’kmaq 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 other’s 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.”

Reviews

Michael Crummey’s River Thieves is a novel of exquisite craftsmanship and masterful artistry that should gain the broad attention it so richly deserves: a novel of intricately balanced storytelling and intriguing location but one also where the keen eye of a poet resides within the language. The writing is simple and beautiful, fully textured and gracefully rendered. Crummey has the rare ability to breathe his characters right off the page and into the reader’s mind, where they then lodge, living on well past the final page. River Thieves marks the emergence of a powerful, mature talent.” —Jeffrey Lent, author of In the Fall

“This multi-faceted jewel of a book is probably the finest Canadian novel of the year… . River Thieves is the sort of novel that raises gooseflesh on the reader’s arms in its opening pages and doesn’t surrender them until well after the covers are closed.” —National Post

“It is a novel full of poetic metaphor and memorable images. The language and phrases of the time are richly used, and through meticulous detail it manages to breathe life into past ways. Most of all, it creates a vivid portrait of Newfoundland of another era.” —The Globe and Mail

“A stunningly polished and powerful book….Crummey’s craftsmanship is masterful.” —Maclean’s

“River Thieves is a wonderful novel and Michael Crummey is a writer of enormous talent….Michael Crummey writers like an old pro and, not so incidently, also like an old soul, who has borne witness to tragic tendencies of humans for generations, and views them with awe and sadness and a clear-eyed compassion.” —Ottawa Citizen

“A rip-roaring adventure tale if ever there was one … An exceptionally accomplished work of historical fiction that revels in the art of storytelling….River Thieves is an auspicious debut for Crummey. His next novel can’t come soon enough.” —Calgary Herald

“A haunting novel … An engrossing and complex story that feels as authentic as a contemporary eyewitness account.” —Elle Canada

“Early into Michael Crummey’s first novel, a rip-roaring adventure tale if there ever was one, a character declares `A good story will never disappoint you.’ Now isn’t that the truth. Certainly there is nothing disappointing about Crummey’s first novel, an exceptionally accomplished work of historical fiction that revels in the art of story-telling.” —The Calgary Herald

“This is a splendid novel reflective of a particular place and time. Michael Crummey is a tremendously gifted writer.” —Alistair MacLeod

“Like David Adams Richards…Crummey favours the minimalist stroke, the revealing detail relied upon to spill its magic gracefully, with tremendous emotional and psychological impact.” —Toronto Star

“In the tradition of such contemporary classics as Cold Mountain and In The Fall, this beautifully-written novel is both a stunning adventure story and a profound saga of courage and idealism in an imperfect world…. The last of the Beothuks died 175 years ago. But thanks to Michael Crummey, they live on in River Thieves, a novel of great wisdom, great power, and great heart.” —Howard Frank Mosher, author of A Stranger in the Kingdom and North Country

“A little-known historical atrocity – the extinction of the Beothuk (“Red”) Indians of central Newfoundland – becomes an authentic tragedy in this brilliantly constructed, immensely moving debut novel by an award-winning Canadian poet and short-story writer….There’s a literary renaissance underway just north of us, and Crummey’s quite literally astonishing debut novel is one of the brightest jewels in its crown.” – Kirkus, April 15, 2002

Praise for Michael Crummey’s short fiction:

In the story ‘Serendipity’, which appeared in the 1998 Journey Prize Anthology, “Crummey brings ephemerally delicate details into chillingly stark relief.” —The Globe and Mail

“Like David Adams Richards… Crummey favours the minimalist stroke, the revealing detail relied upon to spill its magic, gracefully, with tremendous emotional and psychological impact. Writing from the marrow of the matter, the craftsman intimates we’re all card-carrying members of the club of second guesses, that universal sodality allowing each of us to reflect on ways we might have worked harder, played better, loved stronger or stood taller. … Crummey engages readers from the get-go.” —The Toronto Star

“The stories in Flesh and Blood [are] profoundly moving and convincing.” —The National Post

“Like the pauses in a piece of music without which the notes would make no sense, the silences between the parents, children, spouses and lovers in Crummey’s stories shape the meaning of their actions, desires and connection to each other… Crummey’s stories, while honouring hard lives lived with patience, also have a quality of compacted richness.” —The Kingston Whig-Standard

Praise for Michael Crummey’s poetry:

“This is one of the finest first books I’ve come across… If Alistair MacLeod wrote poetry instead of stories, he might have written these poems.” —Quill & Quire

“Michael Crummey’s Hard Light will catch and hold you in a place where the ocean is something you recognize, and the lives of those he writes about have something to say directly to you about laughter, survival, suffering, redemption… When you’ve found an author with the kind of power Crummey has, one of the first things to do is to head back to the bookstore looking for more.” —Atlantic Books Today

“It’s a rare writer who can fashion a vivid memorial to an all-but-vanished way of life; it’s a rarer one who can excavate the vernacular and raise it to planes so poignantly and viscerally true, the exquisite beauty of the apparently ordinary shimmers with a matter-of-fact clarity guaranteed to curl your toes.” —The Toronto Star

“The pieces [in Hard Light] reflect artistic intelligence in their shape and rhythm and in their structural relation to the book as a whole… Each piece is resonant… Rich in specific detail, uttered in the voices of those who’ve lived the stories, these miniatures reveal a world. …Crummey transforms documentary into art…. With Hard Light, Michael Crummey has made a significant contribution to our literature…creating a book that honors the past yet is thoroughly contemporary in its strategies and vision.” —The Sunday Telegram

“Solid, satisfying, scrupulous about the salty details of working lives… Hard Light is solidly anchored on The Rock.” —The Globe and Mail

“The eloquent simplicity goes straight to the heart.” —Patrick Lane