In a masterly debut, the award-winning poet and short-fiction writer Michael Crummey crafts a haunting novel set on the rugged coast of Newfoundland at the turn of the nineteenth century. Told in elegant, sensual prose, RIVER THIEVES Thieves is a richly imagined, historically provocative story about love, loss, and the heartbreaking compromises -- both personal and political -- that undermine lives.
In 1810, David Buchan, a naval officer, arrives in the Bay of Exploits with orders to establish contact with the Beothuk, or "Red Indians," the aboriginal inhabitants of Newfoundland, who are 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. Cassie, the fiercely self-reliant and secretive woman who keeps the family house, walks a precarious line of her own between the unspoken but obvious hopes of the younger Peyton, her loyalty to John Senior, and a steadfast refusal to compromise her independence. 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, when a second expedition to the Beothuk's winter camp mounted by the Peytons leads to the kidnapping of an Indian woman and the murder of her husband, Buchan returns to investigate. As the officer attempts to uncover what really happened at the Red Indians' lake, the delicate web of obligation and debt that holds together the Peyton household -- and the community of settlers on the northeastern shore -- slowly unravels.
The tragedy of miscommunication and loss among these colonists living in a harsh environment in a crude, violent age prefigures and in some sense is seen as the cause of the more profound loss, that of an entire people. 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.