432 pages, 7.99 × 5.19 × 1.18 in
August 27, 2002
The following ISBNs are associated with this title:
ISBN - 10: 0385658176
ISBN - 13: 9780385658171
Read from the Book
The Face of a Robber’s Horse1810have the face of a robber’s horse: to be brazen, without shame or pity. — Dictionary of Newfoundland EnglishO N E It was the sound of his father’s voice that woke John Peyton, a half-strangled shouting across the narrow hall that separated the upstairs bedrooms in the winter house. They had moved over from the summer house near the cod fishing grounds on Burnt Island only two weeks before and it took him a moment to register where he was lying, the bed and the room made strange by the dark and the disorientation of broken sleep. He lay listening to the silence that always followed his father’s nightmares, neither of the men shifting in their beds or making any other sound, both pretending they weren’t awake.Peyton turned his head to the window where moonlight made the frost on the pane glow a pale, frigid white. In the morning he was leaving for the backcountry to spend the season on a trapline west of the River Exploits, for the first time running traps without his father. He’d been up half the night with the thought of going out on his own and there was no chance of getting back to sleep now. He was already planning his lines, counting sets in his head, projecting the season’s take and its worth on the market. And underneath all of these calculations he was considering how he might approach Cassie when he came back to the house in the spring, borne down with furs like a branch ripe with fruit. A man in his own right finally.When he heard Cass
From the Publisher
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.”
About the Author
Michael Crummey was born in Buchans, a mining town in the interior of Newfoundland ("as far from the salt water as you can get and still be in Newfoundland"), second of four boys; he grew up there and in Wabush, another mining town near the Quebec border of Labrador. After completing a BA in English at Memorial University in St. John's, he moved to Kingston, Ontario to pursue graduate work but dropped out before finishing his Ph. D. He has taught ESL in China and worked at the International Day of Solidarity with the People of Guatemala. Now the author of three books of poetry and a book of short stories as well as a novel, he lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His stories and poems have appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies, including twice in the League of Canadian Poets’ annual contest anthology.Crummey “came out of the poetry closet” in 1986 when he entered and won the Gregory J. Power Poetry Contest at Memorial; the $500 award gave him the “mistaken impression there was money to be made in poetry”. In 1994 he won the inaugural Bronwen Wallace Award for Poetry, and his first book of poems was published two years later. Arguments with Gravity, which travels from pre-Confederation Newfoundland to contemporary Central America, won the Writer's Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award for Poetry. His second collection, Hard Light, a retelling of his father’s stories of outport Newfoundland and the Labrador fishery of half a century ago, conjures
Can you tell us how you became a writer?I don’t know if it’s appropriate to phrase that question in the past tense. It implies I’ve arrived somewhere, when my sense of it is that I’m still working away in the dark. Hoping to be a writer every time I sit down to write.I started seriously writing poems in my first year of university, which was a surprise to me at the time. Don’t remember having any desire to be a writer in high school. For some inscrutable reason, studying poetry in English 1000 triggered a compulsion to write poems myself. I wanted to write something that would make a reader respond in the way I was responding to writers like Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen, Ted Hughes, ee cummings, Al Purdy. Everything I wrote in those first few years was monumentally bad. Sometimes I think all that’s different now is that the law of averages is working in my favour. Write enough poetry and eventually some of it won’t suck.After I dropped out of university, I worked at a number of part-time jobs and wrote in my free time. Began publishing in little magazines and journals across the country. I didn’t start writing fiction until my mid-twenties, years after I took up poetry. I wrote short stories for eight or nine years before I finally decided to make an attempt at a novel. Thought I was ready for it, after a long apprenticeship — something close to a real writer finally. That turned out to be a complete misunderstanding of where things stood. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as over-
“Michael Crummey’s River Thieves is a novel of exquisite craftsmanship and masterful artistry that should gain the broad attention it so richly deserves: a novel of intricately balanced storytelling and intriguing location but one also where the keen eye of a poet resides within the language. The writing is simple and beautiful, fully textured and gracefully rendered. Crummey has the rare ability to breathe his characters right off the page and into the reader’s mind, where they then lodge, living on well past the final page. River Thieves marks the emergence of a powerful, mature talent.” —Jeffrey Lent, author of In the Fall“This multi-faceted jewel of a book is probably the finest Canadian novel of the year. . . . River Thieves is the sort of novel that raises gooseflesh on the reader’s arms in its opening pages and doesn’t surrender them until well after the covers are closed.” —National Post“It is a novel full of poetic metaphor and memorable images. The language and phrases of the time are richly used, and through meticulous detail it manages to breathe life into past ways. Most of all, it creates a vivid portrait of Newfoundland of another era.” —The Globe and Mail“A stunningly polished and powerful book….Crummey’s craftsmanship is masterful.” —Maclean’s“River Thieves is a wonderful novel and Michael Crummey is a writer of enormous talent….Michael Crummey writers like an old pro and, not so incidently, also like an old soul, who has borne witness to tragic tendencie
Can you tell us how you became a writer?
I don’t know if it’s appropriate to phrase that question in the past tense. It implies I’ve arrived somewhere, when my sense of it is that I’m still working away in the dark. Hoping to be a writer every time I sit down to write.
I started seriously writing poems in my first year of university, which was a surprise to me at the time. Don’t remember having any desire to be a writer in high school. For some inscrutable reason, studying poetry in English 1000 triggered a compulsion to write poems myself. I wanted to write something that would make a reader respond in the way I was responding to writers like Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen, Ted Hughes, ee cummings, Al Purdy. Everything I wrote in those first few years was monumentally bad. Sometimes I think all that’s different now is that the law of averages is working in my favour. Write enough poetry and eventually some of it won’t suck.
After I dropped out of university, I worked at a number of part-time jobs and wrote in my free time. Began publishing in little magazines and journals across the country. I didn’t start writing fiction until my mid-twenties, years after I took up poetry. I wrote short stories for eight or nine years before I finally decided to make an attempt at a novel. Thought I was ready for it, after a long apprenticeship — something close to a real writer finally. That turned out to be a complete misunderstanding of where things stood. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as over-matched as I did when I was working on River Thieves. It seems a bit of a fluke to have finished it. From talking to other writers, I don’t expect to feel differently the next time out either.
What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
I grew up in Buchans, a small mining town near Red Indian Lake in central Newfoundland. Many of the pivotal events that shaped relations between the Beothuk Indians and European settlers (including the kidnapping of Mary March and the murder of her husband in 1819) took place on that lake. Some sense of those stories has been a part of my life as long as I can remember, and I expect that the same is true to a greater or lesser degree for most Newfoundlanders.
Originally I was interested in writing about Shanawdithit, the last known Beothuk, who died in St. John’s in 1829. But as I began doing research, I was drawn more and more to the story of the Peytons, who played a central role in most of the interactions with the Beothuk in the decades leading up to their extinction. I was surprised by the starkly different attitudes father and son displayed towards the Beothuk. And I began writing a story that might account for some of those differences.
What is it that you’re exploring in this book?
Well, a number of things I guess. First of all, I’m dealing with the historical reality of the extinction of an entire race of people, the Beothuk, who were the indigenous inhabitants of Newfoundland. I was hoping the novel would give some sense of the enormity of that loss, and of the surprising (and somehow appalling) intimacy of the interactions between the Beothuk and the Europeans in those last decades. But I felt it would be wrong to write a novel about the Beothuk — to write as if we know more about them than we do, or to try to give them a voice that is absent from the historical record. Their absence, to my mind, is the point. The Beothuk are a shadowy presence in River Thieves, just as they are in what we know of the past.
The real challenge of the book for me was to explore the “emotional geography” of those
historical events side-on. Slantways. The European characters in the novel, the settlers, are completely unable to communicate with one another, even when they have the best of intentions. Their interactions are based on false assumptions and bias and half-truths and misunderstandings. And the consequences of this — sometimes unforeseen, sometimes not — are usually heart-breaking. I wanted the part of the novel that is basically a little “soap opera” between the European characters to throw some light on the historical drama that is the spine of the book. I tried to avoid any kind of simplistic one-to-one correlation, but I hope the different narrative strands mirror one another back and forth.
In the end, River Thieves is a book about regret. For the individual characters, it’s usually regret of a personal nature. For me, and hopefully for a reader, it goes somewhere beyond that, encompasses something larger.
Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?
I’ve heard writers talk about loving their characters as if they were real people. Before I started working on the novel I thought of that as being a bit precious, if not downright loony. Now, I’m afraid it would be unfair to pick a favourite. That I might hurt someone’s feelings. Jesus.
If I had to pick one character though, it would be Cassie. For the first time in my life, I had the sense I was writing a character who was obviously and unquestionably smarter than me. Not just smarter though. Someone with a wit and an incandescent intelligence, with personal resources and strengths I don’t have at my disposal. I was happy to find her in there (wherever “there” might be), and I hope I did right by her.
Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
Would it be too glib to suggest having a few drinks first?
Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?
Haven’t actually been interviewed about River Thieves yet.
What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?
Mmmmm, how about: “Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?”
Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
No, not really. But I have been surprised by the range of response to my writing. And it seems more and more true to me that what we see in a book has as much to say about us as it does about what we’re reading. One reviewer of my book of stories, Flesh & Blood, called it the most genuinely erotic book he’d read in a long time, which I found puzzling. A friend of mine concluded this particular reviewer obviously didn’t read much erotica. But since then other people have commented on the sex as one of the things that “stands out” in the stories. Obviously it’s there. But to a large extent it’s where the reader is coming from that determines how big a part it plays in their sense of the book. So I think I feel less ownership of the writing once it’s “out there” than I used to.
Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
I’m not sure how to answer this without it being misleading. I haven’t been as conscious of being “influenced” by fiction writers as I have been by poets, partly because I came to fiction so much later and had gone a ways toward establishing a voice of some kind by then. So I’ll just list some writers whose books I’ve loved and leave it at that.
Timothy Findley (Famous Last Words, Not Wanted on the Voyage), Alice Munro (just about anything), Michael Ondaatje (Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Coming Through Slaughter), Jeanette Winterson (The Passion), Norman Levine (I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well), Raymond Carver (Cathedral), Mary Gaitskill (Because They Wanted To), Cormac McCarthy (now a major motion picture), Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities), David Adams Richards (Nights Below Station Street), Alistair MacLeod (The Lost Salt Gift of Blood), Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov), Virginia Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway, Between the Acts), Joyce (Dubliners), David Malouf (An Imaginary Life, Remembering Babylon), Don DeLillo (Libra), Kenzaburo Oe (An Echo of Heaven). A trio of non-fiction books about Newfoundland: Cassie Brown’s Death on the Ice, David MacFarlane’s The Danger Tree, Wayne Johnston’s Baltimore’s Mansion.
Of course this list is ridiculous. It could (and should) be 30 or 40 times longer. 50 times longer. I have a mind like a sieve.
If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
Here’s the sad truth, which causes my mother no end of worry. I am completely unsuited for anything other than what I’m doing. If this writing thing doesn’t work out I’m in big trouble.
If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
This sounds like one of those “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” questions, which I’ve always been lousy at. Just not very imaginative I guess (how’s that for an admission?). Let’s say I would want to have written one of The Song of Songs or The Book of Job. Depending on the kind of day I’m having.