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River Thieves [Paperback]

Michael Crummey
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 27 2002
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.”

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Product Description

From Amazon

2001 Amazon.ca/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 half-hearted attempt, foiled by the colony's petty tensions, to save the Beothuks.

River Thieves is an oddly meandering novel, but 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 fitful 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—is never fully articulated; they 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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strong Debut for Michael Crummey, August 14, 2002 Sept. 23 2002
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.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Storytelling as it should be Sept. 18 2003
By Diane M. Schuller TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Michael Crummey's enjoyable story of the Beothuk is engaging, shocking, and full of well researched history. But, don't expect a textbook here, this is pure and fulfilling fiction.
To avoid restating the other review, this is a well-told story with some unfolding mystery and very fine use of language: strong nouns and verbs don't need the supporting cast of adjectives often used by other writers.
Definitely a recommended read. And, no, this is not a woman-only book: MEN, you'll definitely enjoy this.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars Sept. 10 2014
I loved this book. Thank you.
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