River Thieves

River Thieves

by Michael Crummey

Susan Oleksiw (03/08/14): In the early 1800s the territory that will become Newfoundland is still populated by Beothuk, Micmac, and various Europeans engaged in hunting, trapping and fishing. The British governor hopes to establish cordial relations with the Beothuk, also called Red Indians for the red ochre they used to paint their bodies. Responding to his call to bring back a Beothuk who will learn English and serve as an intermediary, John Peyton and a band of men find a camp and capture a Beothuk woman, setting in motion a series of tragic encounters between the Indians and the Europeans.

John Peyton joins his father, John Senior, on one of his regular trips to Newfoundland from England when he is only a boy of fourteen. He never returns to England and learns instead the life of a trapper and fisherman, working his fatherís extensive holdings in the new land. He works with trappers who have participated in Indian wars and taken opportunities for wanton cruelty, who have married Indians and moved to the interior, who have trapped alone among both tribes for decades, or who have lived in the growing port of St. Johnís, surviving fires and famine. They live hard lives of deprivation, violence, and physically exhausting work with little reward.

Cassie Jura leaves St. Johnís to tend house for John Senior and tutor young John Peyton. A woman who knows the outdoors as well as any man, Cassie is also erudite and stoic. With her trunk of books, she teaches the young boy about Shakespeare and the larger world, but tells nothing of herself. She knows little about John Senior except that he lets her live her life while he traps and hunts. When John Peyton brings home a Beothuk woman named Mary, it becomes Cassieís job to teach her English.

This is a stunning tale of life in the 1800s in an unforgiving land among hardened settlers. The characters are superbly drawn. The women are especially well developedóCassie, Annie Boss, and Mary, among others. I couldnít get enough of Annie Boss, a Micmac woman married to Reilly, an Irish trapper. The prejudices and fears and hatred cut across every nationality, religion, race, occupation, challenging the men and women at every step. The book is a joy to read. Crummy holds the reader with every sentence, urging the reader to take time with each thought, each turn of phrase or incident. Highly recommended.
Rating: *****

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