“I didn’t want to write a book about incest,” Canadian novelist Michael Crummey says, thoughtfully, amid the clatter of coffee cups and afternoon chatter in the lobby bar of a trendy boutique hotel on Manhattan’s Madison Square Park. “And that is not what the book is about.”
The book is The Innocents (Doubleday, Nov. 12), Crummey’s absorbing, quietly provocative period novel about a brother and sister left to fend for themselves on a remote Newfoundland cove in the late 1700s.
Evered and Ada Best are just 11 and 9 years old when their parents and baby sister succumb to illness. Using wiles that would astonish their 21st century counterparts, the illiterate orphans survive the harsh landscape, fishing, hunting seals, picking berries. But navigating adolescence and its mysterious physical urges will prove more daunting.
Crummey’s new book, published in Canada in August and shortlisted for several Canadian literary awards including the Giller Prize, was inspired by one of those serendipitous collisions between writer and source material.
“Seven, eight, or nine years ago,” Crummey says, he came upon an unforgettable tale in the Provincial Archives in the city of St. John’s, Newfoundland, where he lives with his wife, Holly Hogan, a wildlife biologist. A single paragraph relayed the true story of a traveling clergyman who encountered an orphaned brother and sister living on an isolated cove.
“[The clergyman] quickly realized the sister was pregnant and assumed the brother was the father,” Crummey says. “And the only other detail included was that the brother eventually drove him away with a rifle because he got on his clergyman’s high horse.”
Crummey’s novelistic radar went off. “I automatically thought, ‘That’s a story.’ But I also thought, ‘I don’t want anything to do with that at all.’ I didn’t feel like I could tell that story properly, and it just seemed like there were a thousand ways it could go wrong.”
What changed his mind?
“Partly it was that [the brother and sister] never quite left me, and I was constantly thinking of them in relation to my own childhood,” says Crummey, 54, and, unlike his protagonists, had access to sex education but still found his teen years to be the loneliest of his life.
Enter the #MeToo movement, which “was such a part of the air we were breathing” when Crummey (Galore, Sweetland) began The Innocents in March 2018. Writing historical fiction, at times using arcane local terminology, gave him the freedom “to write indirectly about [#MeToo] without ever having to say this is a political book about relationships between men and women.”
The Innocents deftly explores Evered’s and Ada’s shifting interior lives as they struggle to understand themselves and one another. “Pleasure and shame ... these were the world’s currencies,” Ada thinks. (It’s no mistake that “Ada and Evered” evoke Adam and Eve.)
The last thing Crummey wanted was for The Innocents to feel“exploitative.” Still, he worried some readers might be scared off.
“The sexual relationship that happens between [Ada and Evered] is just one of a myriad of things that happen to them in their lives and that they have to find some way forward with. I hope that makes it possible for a reader to make their way through this book. And not be judgmental, or not to feel at a certain point, ‘This is not for me and I’m putting it down.’”
Indeed, there are many wonderful set pieces in The Innocents (run-ins with a bear, a secret treasure found in an indigenous grave) and encounters with colorful outside visitors, all borne to the cove by ship (or, in one indelible instance, a shipwreck, aboard which Evered discovers horrifying evidence of cannibalism).
The Innocents is the fifth novel for Crummey; his literary influences include García Márquez, Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy and, perhaps more surprisingly, Elena Ferrante.
Historical fiction has become the novelist’s unintended metier because in Newfoundland, “the past is still very much with us. And because Newfoundland came very, very late to the 20th century.”Crummey’sfather was just 9 in the 1930s when he joined Crummey’s grandfather in fishing for cod, a centuries-old Newfoundland industry now ruined by commercial overfishing and climate change.
Crummey was born in the mining town of Buchans. As a university student, he fell in love with poetry. He has written a number of poetry collections but says the fallow periods for poetry have grown longer as he gets older.
The poet’s sensitive touch, though, is evident in his empathic new novel. When he first read the archival story of the clergyman and the brother and sister, Crummey felt “pity” for two orphans left in an “impossible situation.”
By the time he finished writing The Innocents, he felt admiration for his fictional siblings: “Just to have been able to survive, but also not just to survive. You know?”
Jocelyn McClurg, the former books editor at USA TODAY, is a freelance writer in New York.