A little-known historical atrocity—the extinction of the Beothuk (“Red”) Indians of central Newfoundland—becomes an authentic tragedy in this brilliantly constructed, immensely moving debut novel by an award-winning Canadian poet and short-story writer.
The narrative, which covers roughly the years 1811–20, is assembled from both the viewpoints and extended reminiscences of four characters: Indian-hating fisherman John Peyton and his less truculent son and namesake; their strong-minded, self-educated housekeeper Cassie Jure (who is also John Junior’s tutor); and David Buchan, the thoughtful British naval officer who is assigned to map the coastland, then Crown property, and also to investigate rumors “that attacks of inhuman barbarity were being perpetrated against the Indians by settlers.” The fate of the Beothuks is all the more powerfully communicated because Crummey’s text barely registers their presence (they’re virtual shadows passing into oblivion), concentrating the effects of the settlers’ treatment of them in the figure of “Mary,” a Beothuk woman abducted during a violent raid thereafter shrouded in defensive secrecy. Lieutenant Buchan’s painstaking reconstruction of a concealed history of theft (both Indians and settlers are, in their separate ways, “river thieves”) and murder is expertly juxtaposed with the several interconnected stories of the aforementioned major characters, each of whom exhibits thoroughly convincing heroic potential and unconquerable crucially damaging human failings. Furthermore, Crummey shifts the focus so skillfully that the reader’s attention and sympathies are seized by, and buffeted among, Cassie’s ferocious hunger for the full life so long denied her; David Buchan’s conflicted vacillations between duty and desire, sharpened by righteous anger; the elder John Peyton’s ego-driven need to hold onto all he has left; and the sense of opportunities lost so stunningly encapsulated in young John Peyton’s anguished final words: “All my life I’ve loved what didn’t belong to me.”
There’s a literary renaissance underway just north of us, and Crummey’s quite literally astonishing debut novel is one of the brightest jewels in its crown.