Best book of the week!
At the beginning of this novel, Moses Sweetland is an old man living in a small community on an island off the coast of Newfoundland. Although the island thrived at one time, now it is occupied by just a few families, including Sweetland’s niece Clara and her autistic boy Jesse.
All his life, Sweetland has lived on the island, which is called Sweetland after his family. Now, the Canadian government wants to buy out the remaining residents, move them off the island, and decommission it. The lighthouse where Sweetland worked for years is now a battery-driven beacon that gets serviced a couple of times a year.
At the opening of the novel, Sweetland is among only a few people who have refused to take the deal. If they don’t all take it, no one gets it, so someone has been leaving Sweetland threatening notes.
This is a powerful novel that covers most of the major events of Sweetland’s life in flashbacks. We see that events have left him very little except the life on the island, where he traps animals and catches fish, and his relationship with Clara and Jesse.
To tell much more would be to tell too much. Suffice it to say that Crummey gets us to care very much for this crusty old man and also for his community. As in Galore, which I really loved, Crummey brings back even the ghosts of the little island.
We, The Drowned
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.
A whale comes ashore at the remote coastal town of Paradise Deep, Newfoundland, in the early 19th century. The people, who have been starving all winter, come out to scavenge what they can of the meat. When Devine’s Widow, an old Irish “wise woman,” cuts open the belly of the whale, a man falls out, pale as an albino, mute, but still alive. Although he stinks like a fish, the Devine clan gives him room in a shed and calls him Judah. Nevertheless, he is treated with dread and superstition until he goes out fishing one day with Colum Devine and they take a huge load of fish in waters that have been barren that season.
The Devines have been at odds with the powerful King-Me Sellers since he proposed marriage to a young Irish bondswoman years ago and she refused him rudely, then went off to marry Devine, practically the first young man she met. Their relationship was not improved years later when King-Me’s daughter Lizzy married Colum Devine.
When King-Me’s spite turns against Judah, the only way the Devines can save him is by marrying him to Mary Trephyna Devine, Colum and Lizzy’s daughter and King-Me’s granddaughter.
Michael Crummey’s multigenerational novel captures the relationships between these two families along with the history of the town, with all its eccentric characters, ghost stories, myths, and tall tales. The novel is fascinating, unusual, and beautifully written. I don’t usually enjoy magical realism, but in this novel it is handled so well that I accepted it and was engrossed in the story. Galore is probably unlike any novel you are going to read, although in its focus on a sea-going people and its occasional feel of a sea tale, it reminds me a bit of We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen.