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Fiction Native American & Aboriginal

River Thieves

by (author) Michael Crummey

Doubleday Canada
Initial publish date
Aug 2002
Native American & Aboriginal, Literary, Historical
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2002
    List Price

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At the turn of the nineteenth century, naval officer David Buchan arrives in the Bay of Exploits with orders to establish contact with the Beothuk or "Red Indians," the aboriginal inhabitants of Newfoundland facing extinction. When Buchan approaches the area's most influential white settlers, the Peytons, for advice and assistance, he enters a shadowy world of allegiances and old grudges that he can only dimly apprehend. His closest ally, John Peyton Jr., maintains an uneasy balance between duty to his father—a domineering patriarch with a reputation as a ruthless persecutor of the Beothuk—and his troubled conscience. When Buchan's peace expedition into "Indian country" goes awry, the rift between father and son deepens and begins to divide those closest to them.  
Years later, a second expedition leads to the kidnapping of an Indian woman and the murder of her husband and Buchan returns to investigate. As the officer attempts to uncover what really happened on the Red Indians' lake, a delicate web of obligation and debt slowly unravels.
An enthralling story of great passion and suspense, vividly set in the stark Newfoundland landscape and driven by an extraordinary cast of characters, River Thieves captures both the vast sweep of history and the intimate lives of those caught in its wake.

About the author

Michael Crummey is the author of four books of poetry, and a book of short stories, Flesh and Blood. His first novel, River Thieves, was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, his second, The Wreckage, was a national bestseller and a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His most recent novel, the bestselling Galore, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book. Under the Keel is his first collection in a decade. He lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Michael Crummey's profile page


  • Nominated, Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Canada & Caribbean)
  • Nominated, Scotiabank Giller Prize

Excerpt: River Thieves (by (author) Michael Crummey)

The Face of a Robber’s Horse


have the face of a robber’s horse: to be brazen, without shame or pity. — Dictionary of Newfoundland English


It was the sound of his father’s voice that woke John Peyton, a half-strangled shouting across the narrow hall that separated the upstairs bedrooms in the winter house. They had moved over from the summer house near the cod fishing grounds on Burnt Island only two weeks before and it took him a moment to register where he was lying, the bed and the room made strange by the dark and the disorientation of broken sleep. He lay listening to the silence that always followed his father’s nightmares, neither of the men shifting in their beds or making any other sound, both pretending they weren’t awake.

Peyton turned his head to the window where moonlight made the frost on the pane glow a pale, frigid white. In the morning he was leaving for the backcountry to spend the season on a trapline west of the River Exploits, for the first time running traps without his father. He’d been up half the night with the thought of going out on his own and there was no chance of getting back to sleep now. He was already planning his lines, counting sets in his head, projecting the season’s take and its worth on the market. And underneath all of these calculations he was considering how he might approach Cassie when he came back to the house in the spring, borne down with furs like a branch ripe with fruit. A man in his own right finally.

When he heard Cassie up and about downstairs in the kitchen, he pushed himself out of bed and broke the thin layer of ice that had formed over his bathing water and poured the basin full. His head ached from lack of sleep and from his mind having run in circles for hours. When he splashed his face and neck the cold seemed to narrow the blurry pulse of it and he bent at the waist to dip his head directly into the water, keeping it there as long as he could hold his breath.

The kettle was already steaming when he made his way down to the kitchen. Cassie was scorching a panful of breakfast fish, the air dense with the sweet smoky drift of fried capelin. He sat at the table and stared across at her where she leaned over the fire, her face moving in and out of shadow like a leaf turning under sunlight. She didn’t look up when he said good morning.

“Get a good breakfast into you today,” she said. “You’ll need it.”

He nodded, but didn’t answer her.

She said, “Any sign of John Senior?”

“I heard him moving about,” he said, which was a lie, but he didn’t want her calling him down just yet. It was the last morning he would see her for months and he wanted a few moments more alone in her company. “Father was on the run again last night,” he said. “What do you think makes him so heatable in his sleep like that?”

O unseen shame, invisible disgrace!” Cassie said. She was still staring into the pan of capelin. “O unfelt sore, crest-wounding, private scar!

Some nonsense from her books. “Don’t be speaking high-learned to me this time of the day,” he said.

She smiled across at him.

He said, “You don’t know no more than me, do you.”

“It’s just the Old Hag, John Peyton. Some things don’t bear investigating.” She turned from the fire with the pan of capelin, carrying it across to the table. She shouted up at the ceiling for John Senior to come down to his breakfast.

By the second hour of daylight, Peyton was packing the last of his provisions on the sledge outside the winter house while John Senior set about harnessing the dog. He was going to travel with Peyton as far as Ship Cove, a full day’s walk into the mouth of the river, but both men were already uncomfortable with the thought of parting company. They were careful not to be caught looking at one another, kept their attention on the details of the job at hand. Peyton stole quick glimpses of his father as he worked over the dog. He was past sixty and grey-haired but there was an air of lumbering vitality to the man, a deliberate granite stubbornness. Lines across the forehead like runnels in a dry riverbed. The closely shaven face looked hard enough to stop an axe. Peyton had heard stories enough from other men on the shore to think his father had earned that look. It made him afraid for himself to dwell on what it was that shook John Senior out of sleep, set him screaming into the dark.

His father said, “Mind you keep your powder dry."

“All right,” Peyton said.

“Joseph Reilly’s tilt is three or four miles south of your lines.”

“I know where Joseph Reilly is.”

“You run into trouble, you look in on him.”

“All right,” he said again. There was still a sharp ache in his head, but it was spare and focused, like a single strand of heated wire running from one temple to the other. It added to the sense of urgency and purpose he felt. He’d come across to Newfoundland ten years before to learn the trades and to run the family enterprise when John Senior was ready to relinquish it. His father electing not to work the trapline this year was the first dim indication of an impending retirement. Peyton said, “I won’t be coming out over Christmas.”

John Senior had set the dog on her side in the snow and was carefully examining her paws. “January then,” he said, without raising his head.

Peyton nodded.

His father took a silver pocket watch from the folds of his greatcoat. He was working in the open air with bare hands and his fingers were bright with blood in the morning chill. “Half eight,” he said. “You’d best say your goodbyes to Cassie. And don’t tarry.”

Editorial Reviews

“Michael Crummey’s River Thieves is a novel of exquisite craftsmanship and masterful artistry that should gain the broad attention it so richly deserves: a novel of intricately balanced storytelling and intriguing location but one also where the keen eye of a poet resides within the language. The writing is simple and beautiful, fully textured and gracefully rendered. Crummey has the rare ability to breathe his characters right off the page and into the reader’s mind, where they then lodge, living on well past the final page. River Thieves marks the emergence of a powerful, mature talent.” —Jeffrey Lent, author of In the Fall
“This multi-faceted jewel of a book is probably the finest Canadian novel of the year. . . . River Thieves is the sort of novel that raises gooseflesh on the reader’s arms in its opening pages and doesn’t surrender them until well after the covers are closed.” —National Post

“It is a novel full of poetic metaphor and memorable images. The language and phrases of the time are richly used, and through meticulous detail it manages to breathe life into past ways. Most of all, it creates a vivid portrait of Newfoundland of another era.” —The Globe and Mail

“A stunningly polished and powerful book….Crummey’s craftsmanship is masterful.” —Maclean’s
“River Thieves is a wonderful novel and Michael Crummey is a writer of enormous talent….Michael Crummey writers like an old pro and, not so incidently, also like an old soul, who has borne witness to tragic tendencies of humans for generations, and views them with awe and sadness and a clear-eyed compassion.” —Ottawa Citizen

“A rip-roaring adventure tale if ever there was one … An exceptionally accomplished work of historical fiction that revels in the art of storytelling….River Thieves is an auspicious debut for Crummey. His next novel can’t come soon enough.” —Calgary Herald

“A haunting novel … An engrossing and complex story that feels as authentic as a contemporary eyewitness account.” —Elle Canada

“Early into Michael Crummey’s first novel, a rip-roaring adventure tale if there ever was one, a character declares 'A good story will never disappoint you.’ Now isn’t that the truth. Certainly there is nothing disappointing about Crummey’s first novel, an exceptionally accomplished work of historical fiction that revels in the art of story-telling.” —The Calgary Herald

“This is a splendid novel reflective of a particular place and time. Michael Crummey is a tremendously gifted writer.” —Alistair MacLeod

“Like David Adams Richards…Crummey favours the minimalist stroke, the revealing detail relied upon to spill its magic gracefully, with tremendous emotional and psychological impact.” —Toronto Star
“In the tradition of such contemporary classics as Cold Mountain and In The Fall, this beautifully-written novel is both a stunning adventure story and a profound saga of courage and idealism in an imperfect world…. The last of the Beothuks died 175 years ago. But thanks to Michael Crummey, they live on in River Thieves, a novel of great wisdom, great power, and great heart.” —Howard Frank Mosher, author of A Stranger in the Kingdom and North Country
“A little-known historical atrocity -- the extinction of the Beothuk (“Red”) Indians of central Newfoundland -- becomes an authentic tragedy in this brilliantly constructed, immensely moving debut novel by an award-winning Canadian poet and short-story writer....There’s a literary renaissance underway just north of us, and Crummey’s quite literally astonishing debut novel is one of the brightest jewels in its crown.” -- Kirkus, April 15, 2002
Praise for Michael Crummey’s short fiction:

In the story ‘Serendipity’, which appeared in the 1998 Journey Prize Anthology, “Crummey brings ephemerally delicate details into chillingly stark relief.” —The Globe and Mail

“Like David Adams Richards… Crummey favours the minimalist stroke, the revealing detail relied upon to spill its magic, gracefully, with tremendous emotional and psychological impact. Writing from the marrow of the matter, the craftsman intimates we're all card-carrying members of the club of second guesses, that universal sodality allowing each of us to reflect on ways we might have worked harder, played better, loved stronger or stood taller. … Crummey engages readers from the get-go.” —The Toronto Star

“The stories in Flesh and Blood [are] profoundly moving and convincing.” —The National Post

“Like the pauses in a piece of music without which the notes would make no sense, the silences between the parents, children, spouses and lovers in Crummey's stories shape the meaning of their actions, desires and connection to each other… Crummey's stories, while honouring hard lives lived with patience, also have a quality of compacted richness.” —The Kingston Whig-Standard
Praise for Michael Crummey’s poetry:
“This is one of the finest first books I've come across... If Alistair MacLeod wrote poetry instead of stories, he might have written these poems.” —Quill & Quire

“Michael Crummey's Hard Light will catch and hold you in a place where the ocean is something you recognize, and the lives of those he writes about have something to say directly to you about laughter, survival, suffering, redemption… When you've found an author with the kind of power Crummey has, one of the first things to do is to head back to the bookstore looking for more.” —Atlantic Books Today
“It's a rare writer who can fashion a vivid memorial to an all-but-vanished way of life; it's a rarer one who can excavate the vernacular and raise it to planes so poignantly and viscerally true, the exquisite beauty of the apparently ordinary shimmers with a matter-of-fact clarity guaranteed to curl your toes.” —The Toronto Star

“The pieces [in Hard Light] reflect artistic intelligence in their shape and rhythm and in their structural relation to the book as a whole… Each piece is resonant… Rich in specific detail, uttered in the voices of those who've lived the stories, these miniatures reveal a world. …Crummey transforms documentary into art…. With Hard Light, Michael Crummey has made a significant contribution to our literature…creating a book that honors the past yet is thoroughly contemporary in its strategies and vision.” —The Sunday Telegram
“Solid, satisfying, scrupulous about the salty details of working lives… Hard Light is solidly anchored on The Rock.” —The Globe and Mail

“The eloquent simplicity goes straight to the heart.” —Patrick Lane

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