On a June morning in 1985, Hector Penniac, a 17-year-old boy from the local Micmac reserve, is killed beneath an errant load of pulp wood in the hold of the Dutch cargo ship Lutheran. It is his first day on the job, old Amos, the Micmac chief, having used his position to wrangle the inexperienced boy a union card – something duly noted by the other dock workers.
Before the boy’s broken body is even lifted from the hull, reverberations from the incident have rippled through the white and native communities, which have long been battling over fishing and logging rights. The union wants to protect its mostly white workforce, the Dutch sailors want to get back home, and more than a few of the Micmac men, targets of generations of racism, are determined to get justice for Hector.
It doesn’t take long for the weight of suspicion and cross-cultural resentment to fall on Roger Savage, a young loner who lives on an acreage along the reserve’s border the Micmac have long claimed as band territory. Roger helped load the wood that killed Hector, though he wasn’t supposed to be working the dock that day. In fact, he’d lost his spot to Hector, whose union card gave him automatic seniority.
Roger is too stubborn to refute the attacks upon his character and retreats into a silent, dogged defence that gets interpreted as an admission of guilt. Both sides agree: Roger must have killed the Micmac boy as punishment for taking his spot in the hold of the boat.
Only Amos, quickly losing his grip on the angry young men who want to avenge the boy’s death, openly questions the accepted version of the story, but he is thwarted on all sides. As the events of the summer mount to a tragedy that leaves two more people dead, Amos increasingly relies on his 15-year-old grandson Markus Paul to help him find the real killer.
David Adams Richards establishes these broad narrative outlines in the somewhat rambling opening of this latest Miramichi novel (which is based on an actual incident), but readers expecting a standard police procedural or an otherwise conventional unravelling of the facts behind Hector’s death may be disappointed. Though Richards moves the narrative forward to 2006, when Markus is working as a high-level RCMP bodyguard and contemplating reopening the case, all concessions to the standard mystery novel are quickly abandoned.
Markus exploits his access to police files and his late grandfather’s own overlooked evidence to find the real perpetrators, but his investigation brings none of the cathartic sense of triumphant justice mystery readers are accustomed to. Instead, the novel’s authorial voice, in a series of sustained flashbacks, mercilessly scours the community until every individual conscience, from the meek to the powerful, has given its full, halting testimony. By the novel’s end, the two communities, both impoverished and looked down upon by the outside world, come together in a kind of sustained chorus of guilt, evasion, justification, and moral exhaustion.
Richards moves deftly between the multiple voices and points of view, exposing corruption and weakness everywhere: in the media, represented by the passive-aggressive but well-intentioned reporter Max Doran; the morally jaundiced local RCMP officers; brothers Bill and Tanker Monk, the union reps who witness the death; and Joel Ginnish and Issac Snow, two Micmac men who rise to power when the community turns on Roger Savage.
Contrasted against these worldly figures are the meek and downtrodden: the peace-loving chief Amos; Roger, whose only crime is to be poor, pigheaded, and caught in the wrong place at the wrong time; Markus Paul, so world-weary he can barely will himself to reopen the case; and various children on both sides bullied and bribed into complicity by their elders.
Richards never fails to capture the right details to set a scene, whether he is sounding out the wheedling monologue of a guilty conscience or describing the grim and sad life mementos collected in a broken man’s bedroom. When Markus tracks down one of the witnesses to the crime, it seems entirely fitting that the man, long hollowed out by guilt and drug abuse, now works in a run-down pet store and lovingly dotes on the budgies, guinea pigs, and hamsters in his care.
The novel also charts the rise and fall of several classic Richards’ bullies, particularly Joel Ginnish, the Micmac thug who channels the anger of the young reserve men with brutish precision, and the truly frightening Monk brothers. Richards brings out the physical and emotional menace – and disturbing charisma – of these community wreckers while simultaneously exposing their deep spiritual wounds.
But Amos Paul, the reluctant chief and Second World War veteran, is the novel’s finest creation. Acting with quiet humour and dignity, he is the story’s doomed moral centre, taking his place among such uniquely meek and wise secular saint figures as Mercy Among the Children’s Sydney Henderson, Nights Below Station Street’s Adele Walsh, and River of the Brokenhearted’s Janie McBride. That Richards can consistently bring such potentially mawkish figures to vivid life is just one reason to keep reading him.