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River Thieves

by Michael Crummey

The scene is Newfoundland’s desolate north shore about 200 years ago. European settlement is well under way and the Beothuk have entered into their twilight on this Earth. In an isolated outpost household, a domestic triangle of simmering, psycho-sexual tension threatens to erupt into violence. Author Michael Crummey doesn’t stop there. The household’s barely formulated hostilities and passions are mirrored and refracted through any number of cultural groups forced to share an unforgiving landscape: English, French, Irish, Mi’qmaq, Beothuk, St.John’s “quality,” the dirt poor of the outports, and the British Navy all collide and are each consumed by the riptides of history.

Crummey was born in Buchans, Newfoundland, grew up there and in Wabush, Labrador, and now lives in St. John’s. He has successfully mined his home province for material before (he’s the author of three books of poetry and a collection of short stories), but River Thieves marks a real achievement in the upward trajectory of this still-young writer and the literature of Newfoundland. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News started a small feeding frenzy of Newfoundland-inspired prose, but her descriptions of the geography carried a super-stylized Cézanne-ishness that kept the island and its inhabitants at a distance. Crummey depicts every bog, ice-pan, pond, and stand of spruce with such sober clarity and clean-lined distinction that the smell of the place seems to invade the reader’s room.

The novel’s only weakness is Crummey’s penchant for inscrutable, standoffish, secondary characters. The protagonist, John Peyton, has a captivating, Keatsian ability to feel everyone’s being but his own. Those surrounding him, however, tend to slip into one another and blur, especially at crucial moments. I wanted more than Shakespeare and Donne quotes to fill out Cassandra, the literate housekeeper and tutor. But this is a small complaint. River Thieves is a brutal, aching trek through a dimly lit portion of our past.


Reviewer: Ken Babstock

Publisher: Doubleday Canada


Price: $34.95

Page Count: 352 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-385-65810-9

Released: Aug.

Issue Date: 2001-8

Categories: Fiction: Novels