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River Thieves by Michael Crummey

River Thieves

by Michael Crummey

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The Beothuk “Red” Indians were the aboriginal people of the island of Newfoundland. With the introduction of both French and English settlements, the Beothuk found themselves isolated and being squeezed out of their land, especially their access to fishing and hunting grounds. They were eventually reduced to a small refugee population living along the Exploits River and ultimately the Beothuk became extinct, with the last known known Indian dying in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1829. It is this little known story of an aboriginal people which is the backbone of Michael Crummey’s novel, River Thieves. Inspired by the Beothuks and a well known English fisherman and hunter by the name of John Peyton (who was reputed to be brutal in his persecution of the Beothuk), Crummey has crafted a novel rich in the history of Newfoundland.

Set in the early part of the nineteenth century, River Thieves opens with naval officer David Buchan arriving in the Bay of Exploits on orders to establish friendly contact with the “Red Indians.” But he cannot do so without the assistance of the locals – a rough, independent group of trappers and fisherman who live in small cabins along the coast and the Exploits River. John Peyton Sr. is living with his son, John Jr., and a young woman named Cassie Jure who he has employed as a house servant and tutor for his son. He is a surly man who has a strong reputation for not tolerating the ongoing thefts perpetrated by the aboriginal peoples…and it is he who David Buchan approaches for help. But there are many secrets in this small community – allegiances and alliances, old recriminations, buried crimes, and relationships which are not always as they seem.

Crummey advances his novel through the eyes of the characters who include both Peytons, the shadowed Cassie, an Irishman with a questionable past and his native wife, and a captured Indian woman by the name of Mary. The harsh environs of Newfoundland feels like another character in this novel about love, loss, and regret.

The theme of regret is strong … all the characters make decisions at some point which cause them to regret their actions. Even John Peyton Sr., who is perhaps the character who is hardest to like, finds himself regretting his behavior toward the Indians. It is this theme of regret which makes this novel a bit melancholy. And perhaps that is appropriate since it is a book which explores the historical atrocity of an extermination of a people.

Crummey uses language and the naming of things as a way of defining the contrast between the native culture and that of the English colonists. And ultimately to symbolize the loss of an entire people. Perhaps the most poignant and poetic part of the book is in the prelude:

Whashwitt, bear; Kosweet, caribou; Dogajavick, fox. Shabothoobet, trap. The vocabularies a kind of taxidermy, words that were once muscle and sinew preserved in these single wooden postures. Three hundred nouns, a handful of unconjugated verbs, to kiss, to run, to fall, to kill. At the edge of a story that circles and circles their own death, they stand dumbly pointing. Only the land is still there. – from River Thieves.

I read Crummey’s amazing novel, Galore, in 2011 and it made my short list of best books read that year (read my review). Although I liked that novel a bit more than this one, River Thieves did not disappoint me. Crummey’s eye to detail, his terrific characters, and his ability to tell a story that captures place and history had me engrossed in this novel. Readers who love historical fiction will want to pick up a copy of this book.

Highly recommended.

River Thieves (2001) became a Canadian bestseller, winning the Thomas Head Raddall Award, the Winterset Award for Excellence in Newfoundland Writing, and the Atlantic Independent Booksellers’ Choice Award. It was also shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Books in Canada First Novel Award, and was long-listed for the IMPAC Award. ( )
1 vote writestuff | Aug 22, 2013 |
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.” ( )
  Booktrovert | Apr 6, 2013 |
Canadian poet and novelist Michael Crummey was born in Buchans, Newfoundland, a town that was presumably named for David Buchan, the English naval officer who is one of the main characters in his 2001 historical novel, "River Thieves."

Early in the 19th century, Buchan tried to make peaceful contact with the small and illusive Beothuk tribe, also known as the "Red Indians," not in reference to their skin color but to their custom of covering their skin with reddish mud. Up to then, contact between white settlers and the Beothuk had been rare and, when it did happen, it usually ended in bloodshed. The Indians liked to steal things from the settlers, and the settlers responded with violence.

The novel's main characters are John Peyton Senior, his grown son John Peyton Junior and Cassie, a woman who had been hired as a teenager to teach John Junior how to read and had stayed on as a housekeeper. As the boy reaches manhood, he falls in love with the older woman, but before he can make his feelings known he concludes she is his father's lover and so remains quiet.

Buchan, meanwhile, has enlisted the aid of the Peytons in his attempts to contact the Beothuk, and he is a frequent visitor at their cabin. The younger Peyton leads an expedition to try to recover stolen goods from the Indians, but two members of the tribe are killed in the process and a young woman is kidnapped and taken back to the Peyton cabin.

Mary, as she is called, gradually learns a little English and, in time, shows little interest in returning to her dying tribe. Buchan, however, is determined to take her back and to find justice for the Beothuk men killed by members of the Peyton party.

"River Thieves" is a fascinating story that sticks close to the historical facts. The novel was a bestseller in Canada, which is where I bought my copy several years ago, but it never found many readers in this country. That is too bad. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Jul 21, 2012 |
Covering approximately ten years at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century this looks at life in Newfoundland - the trappers, fishermen, government officials and their contacts with the native Beothuk. The Beothuk have been driven from their homelands and away from the coastal regions. Meetings are often violent and the British government have decided to try to establish friendly relations, but is it too late?

It is a story I know nothing about and Crummey has managed to create an evocative and informative look at the times and conditions in Newfoundland. The back stories of the settlers gives a picture of those different times and their motives for being in Newfoundland. For me the narrative occasionally jumped making me double check whether I had accidentally turned two pages but the layers of the story do build up. Also some sections read like a traveller's journal - x miles up the river and what the terrain was like. But, as a whole, this is a sometimes bleak (misunderstandings and conflict do not make for a happy read) and very vivid, strong piece of historical fiction. ( )
2 vote calm | Jul 1, 2011 |
A wonderful work of historical fiction. This book tell the story of recent immigrants to Newfoundland around the time of the end of the Beothuks Interesting, vivid, a great story. ( )
2 vote piefuchs | Nov 3, 2006 |
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Various versions of this event have appeared from time to time in our histories and other publications, but as numerous descrepancies characterize these accounts, I prefer to give the story as I had it from the lips of the late John Peyton, J.P. of Twillingate, himself the actual captor of the Beothuk woman. - James P. Howley, The Beothuks or Red Indians, published 1915
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0618340718, Paperback)

2002 Amazon.com/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 halfhearted attempt, foiled by the colony's petty tensions, to save the Beothuks.

River Thieves is an oddly meandering novel, and 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 meandering 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--never becomes fully articulate; the Beothuks 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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:38 -0400)

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