Reading River Thieves did not leave me with the same impression of wild originality as did Galore, the other Michael Crummey novel I read. Still, it is an interesting historical novel about the interactions between Europeans and the Beothuk Indians in early 19th century Newfoundland.
This novel is based on a true incident. It concerns an investigation into the killing of a Beothuk man by trappers after they went looking for redress for some thefts. This expedition brought back a Beothuk woman, later called Mary, who is captured at the beginning of the novel. But the narration of this story is far from straightforward, and we do not learn exactly what happened until the end of the novel.
Further, the characters’ actions are affected by a long history of their personal interactions. John Peyton is a young man at the beginning of the novel. He is in love with Cassie, his tutor and his father’s housekeeper, but she is somewhat mysterious and keeps aloof from him. John Sr. hired Cassie thinking that she and John Peyton might marry, but a misunderstanding interferes.
Lieutenant David Buchan encounters most of those figuring in the incident when he makes an earlier attempt to establish more cordial relations with the Beothuk than the violent ones currently existing. This expedition, which includes John Peyton, John Sr., and some of John Sr.’s employees, ends in disaster. It is the seemingly upright Buchan, later a captain, who is put in charge of the subsequent investigation.
This story is told at a remove from the characters. Although we learn the thoughts of several of them, Crummey never reveals everything, forcing us to view his characters more as an ensemble rather than to consider one a central character. In Galore, Crummey used this technique to depict the occupants of an entire village. Here, it is not quite as satisfying.