THE RIVER THIEVES
A critical paper by
I would really like to report on a special tribe I call the Potomac River Thieves. I suggest we send some members of this tribe recently elected to Congress to Newfoundland without medical insurance and let them fight among themselves, preferably with guns. But Diane insisted that I abide by the rules and report on the marvelous poetic narrative writing of Michael Crummey.
The River Thieves under review is in the category of historical fiction, and as I will discuss, a biography. We of course have had several other books in this genre, including The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, dealing with parts of Indonesia, and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. At a stretch is Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi. All are based on specific historical incidents. River Thieves is also in that genre, dealing with the Beothuk, a nomadic, hunter-gathering native people that may have formed as a cultural group around 1500. They were part of migrating tribes from Labrador. As in the story, the Beothuk used red ochre to paint their bodies and also their houses, canoes and weapons, and we now know they were referred to as the Red Indians. Our novelist Michael Crummey provides details about the essentials of their lives and their Mamateeks, including the hollows in the floors of tents used for sleeping.
Crummey begins his tale in March 1819, which is consistent with the historical person Demasduit, called by the English, Mary March. She was captured by the English (Irish and Scotch) near Red Indian Lake at that date, when the governor of Newfoundland wanted to catch a Beothuk person to act as a mediator to end the hostilities between the tribal group and the English. She was about 23 years old. As we know from Crummey, Captain David Buchan (and Crummey was born in Buchans, Newfoundland) was sent on an expedition to capture such a person. On the first raid, the Beothuk killed two soldiers when Buchan left them to secure stolen equipment, returning to his base camp. Later, the governor approved another expedition, at the request of the Peytons, early settlers, to recover stolen fishing and trapping equipment, as well as dried fish and supplies, stolen by the Beothuks. John Peyton Jr. led one of the groups, son of John Peyton Senior or John Senior in the book, who was known for his hostility to the tribes for stealing his furs and fish. As John Jr. repeats several times in the book, “He is a hard man.”
As we know, on a raid, Peyton’s group killed a young Beothuk woman’s husband whose name was Nonosbawsut, then ran her down in the snow. In a dramatic act to seek mercy, Demasduit, her real name, or Mary in the book, bares her breast. It is an act either to show she is a nursing mother or to submit to a rape if it could save her husband and companions. In real life Demasduit was taken to St John’s to help the English understand the Beothuk and maybe act as a mediator in disputes. She learned some English and taught the settlers 200 words of her language. In January 1820 she was released to rejoin her tribe, accompanied by John Jr, and by Cassie in the book, but died of tuberculosis on her way back to Notre Dame Bay.
In an interesting coda on her life, Demasduit’s niece, Shanawdithit, survived when her mother and sister, who were starving, sought food and help from a British trapper. This happened in April 1823. The three were taken to St. John’s where the mother and sister soon died of TB, which was endemic among the First Nations. According to Wikipedia, she was called by the English, Nancy April, and lived for several years in the home of John Peyton Jr. where she worked as a servant. A few years later, another explorer, William Cormack, founded Beothuk Institute in 1827 to find ways to support their culture. Learning of Shanawdithit, Cormack brought her to his center so he could learn from her, and paid for her support during this time. It turns out that John Jr became resident agent for the Beothuk Institute and objected mightily when Shanawdithit was taken to St. John’s for a few months to be interviewed by Cormack.
Shanawdithit made ten drawings for Cormack and provided details to him about her life, as well as drawings about their habitat, teaching him some of the language. She died on June 6, 1929, of TB.
Is it important to note that John Peyton (John Jr) did not die of remorse over Cassie. In fact, two years after she left the Peyton’s, John Jr married Eleanor Elizabeth Mahaney of Carbonear. They had four sons and four daughters. He lived to a ripe old age of 87 and died in 1879, sixty years after the capture of Mary.
This book should be examined on several levels. Yes, there is a story, expressively and poignantly written. There is also the sexual and romantic energy and tension between the Peyton’s and Cassie, between an unhappy naval officer and his affairs with several women, including Cassie, and the raucous life of the frontiersmen, Scotch and Irish from pre-Victorian England. Tensions are also apparent, sexual and otherwise, between the new settlers and the native women.
These natives are themselves settlers, a fact not presented. The Beothuk and the other tribal groups, including the Mi’kmaqs, also moved to this Northeast region within the past five hundred years, displacing pre-existing tribal groups. But here I am going beyond the data presented in the book.
In addition, there is the tension between the original tribal groups, decimated and often enslaved by the European settlers, and the Europeans as interlopers who take their hunting grounds and sacred terrain, speak a language that to them is not civilized, and use forms of conformity that to them are barbarous: the rule of the king, and armed enforcers who do not respect tradition as they find it.
Then of course there is the story of the settlement of a remote region about which no one from the original 13 states knows anything. Remember, while all of this is going on in St John and the numerous islands, coves, inlets, rivers, streams, upland lakes, a land with some vague Indian footpaths, the new Americans were just establishing their government and imposing their power on other native peoples, claiming just as loudly as the Newfoundlanders that they were uncivilized and savages, the term, tradition has it, that the Norsemen used when referring to native groups like the Beothuks, when they anchored in Newfoundland.
There is also the matter of justice and the rule of law. Should it be natural law, man-made law, law interpreted by the local magistrate? Can law be tempered to the circumstances? Is there any excuse for killing native peoples without a trial? Who has the right to impose their civilization on others?
Also, there is the lifestyle of a new and unruly society: incest, rape, prostitution, heavy, heavy drinking, exotic food: steaks of caribou, seal, bear, pork fat on everything, soaked up with bread.
There is also something that the ancient Greeks might have staged: tensions between father and son eyeing Cassie, wife or tutor as John senior explained, and the fatal the story of the confrontation between the Peyton’s and the Demasduit and her husband and her brother, forced to leave her new born child. There is a chilling scene at the beginning of the book about Demasduit leaving her Mamateek and going outside when she hears a noise. Crummey writes in beautiful prose and imagery, “The infant woke her, crying, and she lay him naked against her breast in the shadowed winter bottom light of early morning….She could smell a clear winter’s day in the air, an edge of sunlight and frost cutting the scent of leather and spruce. A crow called from the trees outside.…The cold in her lungs pricking like a thorn....The crow called again, the brindled sound in the clear air like a shadow cast on the snow.”
The Greeks wrote about men tearing woman from their family for private pleasure, to be forever damned. But that was not the case with John Jr., although the murderous encounters of John Sr. with the natives clearly affected him. Remember his nightmares, sometimes waking up the household.
As it turned out, John Jr. becomes more tolerant man than his father and learns to live with the native peoples, treating them humanely. It would nice to have his diary entries, but he protected Shanawdithit and supported efforts of the Beothuk Institute.
I’ll leave Cassie, her father and mother to discussion, but she is also a figure from Greek tragedy. A battered daughter, who seeks peace on her own terms, shunning relationships she cannot control.
Questions for Discussion
1. Michael Crummey claimed his “book was about regret”. What regrets motivated the main characters? Lost relationships? Upbringing? What?
2. Crummey has said that the physical environment is one of the main characters. In what way is that true? How does the setting impact the human characters in the novel?
3. Crummey’sHow does language impact the story? Any thoughts on the relationship between the action and tone in the novel?
4. What do you think about John Senior? We do noy get much from his own speech. How does John Senior’s perception of himself differ from the way others perceive him? What is his perception of himself as a father compared to his son’s view of him? Same with Cassie. Why do you think she acted to be “free and clear”? Why did she give in to Buchan and with no one else, especially John Junior, as his father may have wished?
5. Misunderstanding is a theme of this novel, and plays a large role. Identify the major misunderstanding elements – the settlers and the Beothuks, the main characters, life itself, parents and children? What are the consequences?
6. Cassie and Peyton Jr. have different relationships with Mary. What characterizes their differences? For instance, how did they interact with her and does it have a meaning for the novel?
7. The governor’s mansion is in a state of disrepair; indeed, of “irreparable damage”. Is there also a counterpart in the relationships between the main characters of “irreparable damage”? Coul it all have been rectified?
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