Searing, brilliant, and tension-filled, this is a foreboding tale about truth, lies and justice--quintessential David Adams Richards.
One fine sunny day in 1985, seventeen-year-old Hector Penniac, a Micmac boy from a local First Nations reserve, begins his first real job to earn money for university: placing logs in the hold of a cargo ship down at the wharf. By noon, Hector is dead. And his neighbour, a young white man named Roger Savage, is accused of killing him.
Taking this shocking incident as his starting point, and demonstrating his justly celebrated insight into the hearts and minds of diverse characters, including those most often silenced and misunderstood, master storyteller David Adams Richards subtly and precisely unravels a complex tale about crime and punishment, truth and lies, power and justice, that is at once an addictive mystery, a nuanced portrait of a close-knit community in crisis, and an illumination of some of the still-unhealed wounds at the heart of our country.
About the author
David Adams Richards was born in Newcastle, New Brunswick. His celebrated body of work has earned numerous awards and accolades to date, most notably for his prose, poetry, novels, and screenplays. All examine the fundamental conflict between individual conscience and truth versus community, history, and perceptions.
Adams Richards recent novels include River of the Brokenhearted (2003), a depiction of a family whose fortunes rise and fall with the success of its movie theatres, The Friends of Meager Fortune (2006), an exploration of the dying days of the lumber industry, which won the Commonwealth Prize (Canada and the Caribbean), and The Lost Highway (2007), a suspenseful story of greed, betrayal, and Murder. Lines on the Water, about fishing on the Miramichi, won the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction in 1998, making Richards one of a very select group; he is only the third person to win Governor General literary awards in two different categories. The first novel in his Miramichi trilogy, Nights Below Station Street, received the Governor Generals Award for fiction in 1988. Mercy Among the Children was co-winner of the Giller Prize in 2000. It has also won the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award for both novel of the year and author of the year in 2001.
David Adams Richards, né en 1950 à Newcastle, au Nouveau-Brunswick, est un auteur prolifique : il a fait paraître treize romans, un recueil de nouvelles ainsi que trois essais. Son succès critique et commercial ne cesse de s’accroître. Le roman Road to the Stilt House a été mis en nomination pour un Prix littéraire du Gouverneur général en 1985, et en 1988 l’auteur recevait cette même distinction pour Nights Below Station Street, premier volet de sa trilogie du Miramichi. Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace a été primé par la Canadian Authors Association en 1991, et trois ans plus tard, For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down a valu à Richards la récompense littéraire Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize.
Les œuvres plus tardives de Richards sont tout aussi bien reçues par la critique. En 1998, son essai Lines on the Water sur la pêche à la ligne dans le Miramichi est honoré du Prix du Gouverneur général, et il se place dès lors au sein d’un groupe enviable : il est seulement le troisième auteur à obtenir la prestigieuse récompense dans deux catégories. En 2000, Mercy Among the Children [La Malédiction Henderson] remporte ex aequo le Giller Prize et, en 2001, la Canadian Booksellers Association récompense Richards du Prix Libris dans les catégories roman de l’année et auteur de l’année. Parmi ses romans les plus récents, on compte River of the Brokenhearted (2003), les hauts et les bas d’une famille au fil des succès et des défaites d’une salle de cinéma; The Friends of Meager Fortune (2006), qui explore de la fin de l’ère de l’industrie forestière, qui a valu à son auteur le Prix du Commonwealth pour la région du Canada et des Caraïbes; et The Lost Highway (2007), une intrigante histoire d’avarice, de trahison et de meurtre.
Excerpt: Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul (by (author) David Adams Richards)
The day Hector Penniac died in the fourth hold of the cargo ship Lutheran he woke up at 6:20 in the morning. It would be a fine, hot June day. He could hear the bay from his window—it was just starting to make high tide—and far offshore he could see lobster boats moving out to their traps.
Hector hadn’t worked a hold before. He had bought new work boots and new work gloves, and a new work shirt that he had laid out on his chair the night before, and he had checked his jeans pocket ten times for his union card, five times last night and five times that morning. He was far too excited to eat, though his mother had made him a breakfast of bacon and eggs.
“I do not know if I will get on,” he said in Micmac, drinking a cup of tea. “They might think other men need the job more.” He stared at a robin outside on the pole, and then across the yard at Roger Savage’s house. Roger, the white man living just on the other side of the reserve’s line.
“You go on up and try,” his mother said. “Amos said you would get on. You tell them you are on your way to university to someday be a doctor.”
“Oh, I won’t say that,” he answered. But he felt pleased by this. Hector was not at all a labourer. He had rather delicate hands, and a quiet, refined face. But loading the hold with pulpwood was the best work he could do at this time to get some money, and he knew if the men would help him learn he would be a good worker.
His mother had put a lunch into a brown paper bag, but couldn’t find the Thermos for his tea.
“Don’t worry. They have a water boy at every hold—that’s all I need.”
Hector asked about his half-brother, Joel Ginnish, just as his chief, Amos Paul, pulled into the yard in his old half-ton truck. Joel once again was in jail.
“He’ll be back out soon,” his mother said.
Hector smiled. “I don’t know if he’ll ever forgive me for being born. I think in all honesty that’s where his trouble started.”
“You have a good day working,” his mother answered.
Then Hector remembered the cigarettes and gum he was going to take to the hold to treat the other men, and ran upstairs to get them. Amos Paul, his chief, the one responsible for helping him get this job, and helping him many times besides, had promised him a drive to the boat. It was because of old Amos that Hector was being allowed a union card. He ran back down and got in the cab. Amos’s fifteen-year old grandson, Markus Paul, was in the truck with him, on his way to fish mackerel off the lobster wharf at the end of the shore road. Hector would be working the Lutheran at the pulp wharf in Millbank, some seventeen miles away. Amos would go to early Mass to celebrate the anniversary of his wife’s death.
When Amos’s truck turned in the Penniacs’ yard, its throttling woke up Roger Savage, the white man who lived next door. Savage, planning to work the Lutheran as well, knew he would be too late to get into a hold if he didn’t hurry, but missed waving down Amos for a ride.
“Everything on you looks so very shiny and new,” Markus said in Micmac to Hector.
“You think I am too shiny?” Hector asked, worried.
“No, no—but you wouldn’t want to be one bit more shiny, Hector, I’ll tell you that!”
Those would be the last words they ever spoke together.
Roger Savage was one of those men who without realizing it would become cast in a brutal light. He was the kind of man other men call “a hard worker,” which means he always did a variety of jobs that required his strength to get them done. He had not graduated high school. But he had worked on and was about to receive his GED later that summer. That is not to say he was stupid, but it stipulated a kind of attitudinal demeanour that others, not so bright, could use to construe the type of man they were dealing with: that harsh labour meant a harsh man. But it was more than that. From everything, from television to books, Roger got the idea that he was the man who must change, that he was the man who must break out of the sod of anger and mistrust into the blossoming world that other men had supposedly gone into.
He had worked from the time he was thirteen, carrying buckets of water to the ships that came in. He had cut wood with his father— sometimes 120 cord a year. He was a carpenter in the winter and helped maintain the rink for other boys and girls to play a game he himself never did.
He stayed on the ice flats for smelt, the great nets mended by his own hand and the chainsaw blade sharpened by himself alone. He worked as a spare on lobster boats when he was needed. He’d been in storms and rough seas enough, which those who hadn’t been would at various times reenact in grand performance of Maritimes culture onstage. The house he lived in was ninety years old, and blackened by soot up one wall, and with tarred and speckled shingles that were put up by his father. It was sunken on one side, and so near the reserve as to have some say it overlapped the border. No one seemed to mind this, for Roger was not a bother to anyone. He was not at all odd, as others called him, just a loner.
Starting at seventeen he had got on in the hold of pulp boats, though he never sided with the union. He worked boats faithfully, taking the cuts and spills from the loads all in stride.
One day, the year he turned twenty-two, he was put out of a hold because he came too late to the yard. This was a union decision made because of who he was. But it was bad luck for the other lad who worked in his place.
An accident caused the death of Hector Penniac—a First Nations man from Amos Paul’s reserve. But within a short time the death came to be viewed as suspicious. And once it was, it came to be viewed as criminal. There were two possible motives for Roger to have caused this death, one bigoted and the other union-related—a retaliation for not being allowed to work that day by a man the union had problems with. “He had not wanted to be put out of the hold,” people said, “and made sure Hector and the two union boys inside paid the price!” The two other men in this hold were Bill and Trevor “Topper” Monk, president and secretary of the Stevedores Local 837.
You were supposed to stand along the edge of the hold when the pulpwood came down on the hoist. But Hector didn’t. Why, no one knew, but Hector did not stay there. Some believed he had walked over to the side to take a piss. This is what Topper Monk said the boy must have been doing. As he walked to the centre, the hoist operator lost the steel tether to the load.
What was special was this: Hector was “different” in a way in which most Micmac boys—or any boys—wanted little to do with. To the young men he was “a queer.” They left him on his own. Some said he had propositioned them in the gully where they used to drink, put his hand on their knees or even farther up their legs. Yet after his death many who knew him said this was false. They wanted to rectify their feelings towards him because of what they now considered a valiant death, and so he became, in a matter of days, a heroic figure to the boys on the reserve. Roger Savage lived close to this reserve and a certain number did not like him either. Or such was the thinking applied after this incident.
At any rate there was a good deal of excitement around this death, as there always is around any death in a small community where everyone knows one another. People could partake in this excitement, and even feel a kind of kindred remorse and love, without suffering greatly. But from the first, this death was special. It would in fact over this summer become an event that would encapsulate undercurrents that had been troubling the reserve for over thirty years: land reform rights, logging and fishing rights, and activism from the left in the guise of university pronouncements and paper editorials. It would put this Roger Savage in the media glare, like a man coming out of a whorehouse might hold up his hands against the fl ash.
They brought the body up from the hold, an old coat wrapped about the head and face, but the arms dangled. Someone on the ship had been sent down by the captain and had tried to wash away the blood. “Who was killed?” went up along the highway.
The news entered the reserve like that. That is, it entered the reserve as “An Indian was killed loadin’ the boats.”
That is how Markus Paul first heard of it while he was fishing mackerel on the lobster wharf. It had been a quiet, uneventful morning. He had got a drive up with Amos and Hector as far as the turnoff. He lived with his grandfather and his older sister in a small house on the bank side of the bay—beyond the first fields of the reserve. His life at fifteen was almost identical to Roger Savage’s at the same age. Markus’s grandfather Amos had been elected chief a year or so before—and until that moment nothing spectacular at all had happened.
They had had three marches during the year—one against prejudice and two to hopefully bring notice to the climb in suicides on their reserve, of which four had happened, six in total attempted.
“An Indian was killed today up in Millbank loadin’ pulp,” one white youngster said to another as they fished off the far side of the wharf. At first it didn’t register with Markus that it could be anyone he knew or that it was anyone from his reserve. But he knew saying “an Indian” meant for those whites that the death was not so grave or even noteworthy. It gave them a certain feeling of remoteness. So Markus stared at the green water as the waves undulated under the tar timber. Then suddenly he thought it might be Hector. Shaken, he picked up the four dried-out mackerel he had caught using his red devil lure, laced a string through the gills and carried them along the sunny and dusty shore road, walking in his bare feet.
Roger Savage himself did not know that the boy who had replaced him had died. He had run up to the ship minutes late and was informed that his place had been taken. But he sat on a pulp line and waited, thinking he might get on after lunch because the workers would shift holds. About ten in the morning he had a drink from a pint of rum to wait out the boredom. He said little to the other men about things he thought not worthy to speak of. In fact, he was almost always that way.
“Lucky the whole hold wasn’t done for, and all of us dead,” one of the men in the hold with Penniac said when he climbed the ladder. Topper Monk had not known Roger was in the yard, and was doubly surprised to hear that he had been hanging around where the loads were hooked for his hold. The hold he, Roger, was supposed to be in. So this looked like mischief from the start.
Around the time Markus heard of the death while fishing mackerel, three Micmac men were sent by Isaac Snow, perhaps the most forceful of the First Nations men, to guard the body of the boy, he being up there alone and dead in the pulp yard, lying on a fl at bit of grass among a group of uncaring white men. (In fact many of the white men did care, and Roger Savage, who had known Hector for years, was one of them.) This was an instinctive move by Snow to grab attention for a reserve that had other, hard-pressing needs; it was an opportunity to remind people of them. That is, he was sickened by the death of a member of his band, but it was also a political move.
Savage had not awakened that morning until he heard Amos’s truck turn in Penniac’s yard. The two union leaders were in the hold with Hector, who had been given, by the yard boss, the job Savage had been late for. This would prove bad for Roger later on. Because there was something else unknown for at least a few days, though rumoured from the start.
It was this: Roger had hooked.
That is, after lying about for three hours nursing a horrible hangover, wondering why he didn’t just go home, and taking a drink from a pint of rum being passed about by two men called the leaners—because they did nothing but lean against the pit props and watch the work— Roger was asked to hook the cable together as the load of pulp was raised. The men had laid the eight-foot pulp on the cable and brought it together above the last log; this particular cable was joined at the lifting point by a steel clamp.
This clamp had given way. And Roger had not been hired to hook on—the man who was hooking on that morning, George Morrissey, had left the yard for ten minutes. Just by chance all of this had happened without the least notice. Roger had wanted something to do. He shouldn’t have done the load, but he had. Now he felt responsible for hooking a bad load. It might have been his fault, but he felt he had hooked sound.
When people inspected the clamp later, it seemed as if someone had pried it open. That was either criminal negligence or malicious forethought. No one said this at first, however. It would all take time. Roger had wanted to use his money to finish building a room he had started in his old house and get staging up and attach new shingles in the summer. His little house was dropping, and he wanted to raise it up on a hydraulic jack and mend the back end. And he hoped he could use what he had from working lumber boats to buy out Cullen Savoy’s lobster licence the next year.
What was more intriguing was this—something that would haunt everything else: the dicey fact of riparian rights to three salmon pools on the North River that Roger Savage had inherited and that many Micmac, especially Isaac Snow, said belonged to them. The riparian rights were water rights to the salmon pools that bordered Roger’s land. He said he owned them, the band said they owned them, and as yet they had come to no meeting of minds.
Hector had been the only First Nations boy to graduate the year before. Two First Nations girls graduated, but boys from this particular reserve were usually less successful. But Hector had been determined. This would become an important point when discussing Roger and Hector: one a white boy living a rather traditional, and to some a pointless, existence—as Barack Obama might say, “clinging to guns and religion”—and the other a native boy, wanting to do something out of the ordinary for others, in fact a humanitarian.
Roger went home and sat at his table, saying nothing and listening to nothing. He looked numb, and on occasion he moved his hand up to his forehead and took it away. He put supper on—a pot for boiling potatoes, and some fried pork chops. But when it was ready he did not eat. He shook some salt on the potatoes and stared at them a long time. Then he stared out at his gravel drive and the damp yellow stalk weeds in the yard. He blinked impassively at passing cars. He did not answer the phone. And then others started to appear in the evening yard. It was a cool June night, but one that suggested great warm weather would come.
He sat at the table and drank his tea, moving the tea bag back and forth in his cup as he always did, and looking at the old crooked table as if he was mesmerized.
“An Indian was killed loadin’ a boat today!” Kellie Matchett yelled into him.
“It was Hector,” one of the men said.
“I know it—I was there. Now please go,” Roger replied.
Roger did not like Kellie Matchett—and within ten minutes of his telling her to leave the yard, Kellie was phoning upriver to Roger’s girlfriend, May, explaining to her that something really terrible had happened on the wharf, and it involved Roger. Kellie Matchett was of course only relaying information to her sweet friend May. She was, however, quite happy the news was terrible.
Later, just before dark, the police came, and Constable Drew asked Roger out to the car. The officer was shorter than Roger and had a small bone structure, yet his disposition was pleasant enough. He had heard many things about this Roger Savage already—not of any substantive criminal nature, but of a man who kept to himself and did not like others, and who had threatened men to stay off his land.
Roger sat in the front seat, the window rolled down halfway. “Did you hook, or did George Morrissey?” Constable Drew asked, looking down at his notebook.
“George hooked—I was just wasting time,” Roger said. His voice was unusually quiet and powerful. Drew told him nothing was being suggested but not to leave the area until the matter was cleared up, because the leaners, the two brothers who were drunk, had said he had hooked. And there had been some confusion in the hold when the load dropped, and no one was sure at the moment if the load was hooked wrong or had hit the side—which meant that either the crane operator had made a mistake or the man who hooked on did. The Monk brothers did not want to blame anyone. But they themselves had been close to death, and Roger, some said, had been hanging around suspiciously.
“What do they mean, suspicious?” Roger asked.
“Well, do you think it was suspicious that you were hanging around?” Constable Drew asked.
Roger shook his head. “No, not at all,” he said. “I work there. The leaners are there every day, drinking and picking up what they can, and no one calls them suspicious.”
He should not have said that and he knew it. But the very word suspicious allowed him a glimpse into what was in store. That is, he knew in his heart it was really not at all suspicious, yet suddenly his answer had made it so.
He went back into the house, went to the attic and began to shake, violently. He was in a bad spot. He had always felt people did not like him. Now they would have reason not to.
Also, he had told them George had hooked, because it was George’s union card that was at stake, not his. But to say George had hooked, even to keep George’s union card secure, put Roger in a terrible light if George recanted and those two leaners told on him. So he realized what was now too late to take back. He could not now tell the truth, saying he was lying only to protect someone else.
“Brilliantly scours the conscience of a community. . . . [He] moves deftly between the multiple voices and points of view . . . [and] never fails to capture the right details to a scene. . . . That Richards can consistently bring such potentially mawkish figures to vivid life is just one reason to keep reading him.”
—Quill & Quire (starred review)
“In a stark, stunning and profound new novel, New Brunswick’s David Adams Richards . . . exposes Canada’s rawest nerve. . . . The construction of this novel is brilliantly conceived, and flawlessly executed. This is Richards at the height of his powers, which is very high indeed. The word masterpiece is not too strong.”
“The searing emotion and stirring probity we have come to expect of an author fighting to stave off anachronism’s claim to right and wrong, good and evil. . . . the characters themselves, who could have been frozen into moral archetypes . . . attain a welcome level of complexity. . . . Richards’s larger picture includes a moral lesson at once topical and timeless.”
—The Globe and Mail