River Thieves is a tale of early 19th century Newfoundland, when the native Beothuk still roamed in small groups, considered a curiosity by those new to the land. The English settlers, some of who are transported criminals who must earn their way as they can, face many hardships eking out a living trapping and fishing. Michael Crummey brings all these elements together in this, his first novel.
The tale unfolds gradually, interrupted from time to time by flashbacks filling in character backstory. A less talented writer might not have been able to make this work, but Crummey succeeds admirably. His unique voice and finely tuned narrative, seasoned with period words, carry the reader on an exciting journey.
Told from a variety of viewpoints, the story centres around the capture of a young Beothuk woman and its consequences. Her interaction with her captors is poignant as she struggles to make herself understood. She affects them all in different and unexpected ways, teaching them something about themselves.
The myriad complex characters walk right off the pages, while the reader feels the cold, hears the water crashing on the shore and tastes the fried fish that was a diet staple. There is no doubting the time period or its realities. Of particular note is the mind and body numbing winter journey to the Beothuk's winter camp
The only quibble is with the rather dark atmosphere as most of the characters suffer in some way. Though this adds to the verisimilitude, it would have made the book difficult to finish had Crummey not been such an accomplished storyteller.
This review first appeared in the December 2002 issue of The Historical Novels review.
© Teresa Eckford, 2002