Crummey, Michael: River Thieves

River Thieves
Michael Crummey
Doubleday Canada, 2001

First published in Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Summer, 2002
Review by: Kerry Riley

It was the late 1700’s and the world sat uneasily on the cusp of the industrial revolution. A hinge moment in history, the power of reason ascendant, it was a time when something primal was lost or driven, irrevocably, from existence, when magic was demoted to a parlour trick, miracles lost their powers of explanation, and our ties to the rhythms and cycles of nature began to unravel. For hopeful British immigrants, arriving in the Americas, it was a time of untold possibility, of potential wealth and prosperity, a new beginning. For the Beothuk Indians, of the eastern Canadian seaboard, it was the end of the world. It is at this intersection of conflicting destinies that Michael Crummey situates his powerful first novel, River Thieves.

By the end of the 18th century, a remnant of the Beothuk tribe, who once occupied the entire coast of Newfoundland, had retreated to Red Indian Lake, on the north east shore – for them, the “last good place.” There had, it seemed, been some positive contact with Europeans in the early 1600’s, but then, “several pivotal misunderstandings,” which led to hostilities. Strangely passive, the Beothuks had shown “a curious lack of concerted resistance” to their displacement, had, it seemed, simply melted away, into the forests.
John Duckworth, an early British Governor of Newfoundland became fascinated with the elusive Beothuks and, in 1810, charged a promising British naval officer, Lieutenant Buchan, with the task of establishing dialogue with the last remaining tribe members, and with quelling acts of aggression, perpetrated against the natives, by new settlers. A reward was also offered to anyone who succeeded in delivering a Beothuk to the government in St. Johns, in the hopes that this captive could then be used to establish a dialogue between the Crown, and its new subjects.

Buchan, a young idealist of the most fatal type, his faith in British law, order and justice unshakeable, in turn, enlists the help of a local entrepreneur, John Peyton Senior, in mounting an expedition to Red Indian Lake. In this way, the fates of Peyton and those around him become inextricably intertwined with those of Buchan and the Beothuk Indians.

Peyton, has, it seems, had some negative interactions with the natives himself, and is utterly contemptuous of the idea that they should be protected. The expedition ends in disaster when two of the men, after what seemed like a successful, friendly exchange, are inexplicably murdered by the Indians, and it looks as if Peyton’s reservations about the essential Beothuk character, however crudely expressed, may be justified.

Duckworth’s reign as governor ends, British interest in the Beothuks wanes, and Buchan is called away to other duties. The natives continue to perpetrate minor acts of sabotage, theft and vandalism, and the settlers’ resentment grows. Eventually, a Beothuk woman is captured, and two of her tribesmen murdered, by a party led by Peyton. Buchan, still anxious that the Beothuks experience the benevolence of His Majesty’s patronage, reenters the story, and is assigned, in the name of British justice, to investigate the incident that led to the woman’s capture. This throws him into conflict with the Peyton party, who are (rightly, in seems) concerned about falling prey to Buchan’s particular brand of blind idealism. The native woman dies of tuberculosis before she can be returned to her people, who, shortly thereafter, seem to disappear entirely from the landscape.

Most modern readers, I suspect, will enter the story with sympathies tilted in favour of the Beothuks. Their extinction, after all, was an unfathomable tragedy and the role the European settlers played in it can, at best, be considered a deplorable and ignorant mistake. Crummey, a master manipulator, does, initially, give us pretty much what our present-day prejudices have conditioned us to expect – John Peyton Senior and his ilk, are indisputably crude, ignorant, self-serving, brutal. We recoil with a certain despairing smugness. Yet, filtered through the settler’s perspective, the Beothuk behaviour is disturbing. Many settler possessions are found in their campsite – the accusations of thievery were not simply malicious. John Senior’s business partner, it seems, was also brutally murdered and beheaded by the Beothuks, although this, again, is not the whole story. Why did they turn on the two men temporary left in their company? What was the about-to-be-captured Beothuk woman trying to communicate when she showed her breasts to men of the Peyton party? Just how primitive and savage were these people, how naive of us to sympathize?

As Crummey (a Newfoundlander himself) explores the backgrounds of each of the main characters, layers of complication, misunderstanding, and mitigation are exposed — sympathies seesaw back and forth. Like David Adams Richards before him (perhaps it’s an east coast sensibility?) he is fascinated with the battering truth takes in the welter of conflicting interests which inevitably surround it.

In the end our human urge to assign absolute blame must go unsatisfied, as it becomes clear that no one is wholly innocent, or wholly guilty, that no one’s story is simple, and that perhaps the Beothuk’s fate was decided by forces far greater than any individual. Finally realizing how foolish he was to believe that the ideals of the British empire could protect them from the push of history, Buchan observes that, as late players in the story, he and the settlers have only “taken the tragedy of an entire race of people,…and cheapened it with our own sordid little melodrama.”

Crummey’s depiction of the pathos of a vanishing people is extraordinary. Deceptively clean and simple, the writing has a precision and stillness which, fittingly, captures the reverential atmosphere of a museum, while propelling the Beothuks, with its inexorable logic, out of a world no longer sympathetic to their natures. In the end, as we well know, only a few remnants of their language remain, a scattering of words, left to point, from the very edges of the conscious world, to their story.

It’s a sad, and beautiful book which, even by the exacting standards set this season, stands in a class of its own.

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