Blasts from the Past: River Thieves by Michael Crummey (2001)

Cover image This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

I went through a phase of reading novels about Native Americans of which Michael Crummey’s debut was one of the best. That particular interest had been sparked by several holidays in the American South West.  I remember, vividly, driving through the Arizonan desert marvelling at the landscape while listening to reggae on the Navajo radio station, something for which they have a passion. Sadly we’d missed a Toots and the Maytals gig the previous year in Santa Fe by just a few days.

River Thieves is set about as far from New Mexico as where I live in the UK. It’s the story of the extinction of a Newfoundland tribe – the Beothuk – in the early nineteenth century. I no longer remember as much about the novel’s story as I would like but a quick Google trawl reminded me that Crummey uses four characters to unfold this miserable tale of atrocity: a fisherman who loathes the Beothuk, his more tolerant son, their strong-minded housekeeper and a British naval officer assigned to investigate rumours of outrages perpetrated against the tribe. Two expeditions are launched, both involving the fisherman and his son, one in search of a peaceful solution which goes horribly wrong, and the second – years later – which ends in the kidnapping of a Beothuk woman and a murder.

What struck me most about the novel was the beautiful prose in which Crummey unfolds this sad story, and the subtlety with which he handles it. Just over a year ago I read his latest novel, Sweetland, and while I enjoyed it, it was no match for River Thieves which seems overdue for a rereading. Just as well I have my old proof copy as it seems that, sadly, the novel is no longer in print in the UK. Naomi over at Consumed by Ink is a fellow fan if you’d like to read a more detailed review.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

You can find more posts like this here.

17 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: River Thieves by Michael Crummey (2001)”

  1. That’s a good idea, although I am not sure I would have things fresh enough in my mind to write a review about pre-blogging books. I have never heard of this series, so thank you for the introduction.

    1. It would be lovely if you posted on a few of your own blasts from the past, Marina. I started writing these partly because I’m all too well aware that I succumb to the lure of the next bright shiny new book. Of course, there are legions on books sitting on the shelves that I felt that about way back when. It’s surprising how much I remember once I get started and there’s the added bonus of recalling what I was up to at the time.

  2. I really enjoyed this book. After reading it many years ago, I learned that one of my son’s best friends has Beothuk blood. I’ve seen Michael Crummey a few times, even spoken with him, but he gave the impression in one interview that he had negative feelings about this book—or perhaps the experience of writing it. Some of the imagery still sticks with me after all these years. That may be his background as a poet. Last time I saw him he was in the area on a poetry residency and I bought a collection of his poems that he signed for me.

    1. Fascinating! I wonder how they and their family feel about what happened to their tribe now. Also interesting that Crummey was loath to talk about the book. I imagine the research was harrowing, perhaps that was it. I’d somehow manage to miss the fact that he’s also a poet which explains the lyrical prose.

  3. I’ve taken a leaf out of yours (and Cleo’s) books/ blogs and later this month I’m going to join in on the ‘blasts from the past’ posts.

    I haven’t read this book and have been trying to think of others I’ve read about Native Americans… the only ones that immediately spring to mind are LaRose and Caleb’s Crossing (own both, haven’t read either yet).

    1. Oh, please do, Kate. I’d love to see what you come up with. Most of the Native American novels I read I bought when we were in the States. It’s such a long time ago now that I can’t remember them all but Sherman Alexie, Thomas King and Susan Power come to mind.

  4. I so love all of Michael Crummey’s books. The story behind this one is terribly sad, but the book is beautiful. I’m glad to hear it has stuck with you! And, funny coincidence, I was just thinking about this book yesterday as I was writing a review about some Atlantic Canada short fiction.

    1. Synchronicity! I’ve read three of Crummey’s books but this struck me as by far the best. I’m sorry that it’s gone out of print in this country.

        1. It’s The Wreckage. I was disappointed in Galore, probably because my expectations had been raised by River Thieves. Would you recommend it?

          1. I liked them all, but The Wreckage was probably my least favourite. I also found it to be his darkest. On the other hand, I loved Galore (but it was also the first one I read, so had no expectations).

  5. I loved Sweetland and didn’t know about this one, will have to put it on my ‘searchincharityshopandsecondhandbookshop’ list.

    1. I’ve read three – Sweetland, Galore and River Thieves which I thought was by far the best. Must be one for sale floating somewhere on the web.

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