About this book:
River Thieves is the riveting story of a group of European settlers of the New World in the early nineteenth century. The Peytons, their enigmatic housekeeper, and the men who manage their fishing and trapping concerns on the shores of Newfoundland live lives of punishing physicality, inarticulate longing, and violence. Their misunderstandings and compromises have tragic consequences not only for their own community but also for the Beothuk, or Red Indians, a people on the verge of extinction. With penetrating insight, Michael Crummey captures both the vast sweep of history and the intimate lives of those caught in its wake.
Questions for Discussion
We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and provide a deeper understanding of River Thieves for every reader.
1. Michael Crummey claims that River Thieves is a “book about regret.” What regrets motivate the main characters in the novel? How does regret inform the novel as a whole?
2. Crummey has said he thinks of the physical landscape of Newfoundland as one of the central characters in River Thieves. In what ways is this true? How does the character of the physical environment have an impact on the human characters in the novel?
3. Crummey’s poetic prose often contrasts with the gritty events and harsh settings it serves to depict. What is the relation between action and tone in the novel? How does the language affect the impact the story has?
4. In River Thieves, the characters’ relationships with their fathers are important in shaping the way they interact with the world and with others. How does John Peyton’s relationship with his father affect the way he views and interacts with the world? How do you suppose John Senior’s tumultuous, often violent relationship with his own father shaped his relationship with his son?
5. Crummey presents John Senior primarily through the eyes of others, particularly John Peyton, and penetrates only briefly into the man’s own mind. How does John Senior’s perception of himself differ from the way others perceive him? In particular, how does John Senior’s perception of himself as a father differ from his son’s view of him?
6. At the opening of the novel, Peyton seems to be on a quest to prove his manhood and his worth. What are his motivations? Do his aims change as the novel progresses?
7. Cassie Jure is able to take care of herself and seems to prefer to do so; she maintains a certain distance between herself and others, absorbs herself in her books, and is constantly “fighting to keep herself free and clear” (p. 316). What do you think are her reasons for acting in such a manner? What experiences in her life have led her to be so self-reliant?
8. In what ways does Cassie break with her usual behavior in her interactions with Captain David Buchan? Why? Does her view of the nature of their relationship differ from Buchan’s?
9. When Cassie interrupts an argument between Peyton and John Senior by touching both men on the shoulder, Peyton finds it disturbing that “Cassie’s touch obliquely [connects] him and his father that way” and wonders whether he is “the only one of the three of them to be bothered by it” (p. 115). What are the sources of such tension in the Peyton household? How does Cassie’s presence affect the relationship between father and son?
10. Before making the decision to come to Newfoundland, Peyton is caught between the wishes of his father and those of his mother. When John Senior asks him to make a definitive decision, Peyton says he wants to go, knowing all the while that “he would have said just the opposite if his mother had asked him the same question first” (p. 67). Does Peyton eventually emerge from this submissiveness, or does he remain, as Buchan claims, “under the influence of J. Peyton Sr.” in all things (p. 285)?
11. The names and naming of places serve as important themes throughout the novel. As the Buchan expedition progresses up the river toward the Beothuk camp, the settlers “drop names behind themselves like stones set to mark the path out of wilderness” (p. 98). What are the settlers’ attitudes toward the process of naming? What significance does Crummey give to it, and to names in general?
12. In discussing his inspiration for the novel, Crummey says that he “was surprised by the different attitudes father and son displayed towards the Beothuk” and “began writing a story that might account for some of those differences.” What precisely are the different attitudes that John Peyton and John Senior display toward the Beothuk? What can you gather from the story that elucidates their viewpoints? Does the attitude of either change, and if so, how?
13. Misunderstanding plays a large role in the interactions between the settlers and also in their attempts to communicate with the Beothuk. What are the major misunderstandings and misconceptions in the novel? What are their consequences?
14. Crummey says that the absence of a clear voice or portrait of the Beothuk Indians in River Thieves is due to their absence from the historical record. How is the Beothuk’s absence, as Crummey puts it, “the point”? How does it affect the experience of reading the novel? How does it affect your perception of the settlers to know that their actions, intentionally or not, are contributing to the Beothuk’s extinction?
15. The major crack in John Senior’s hard surface is that he is constantly plagued by nightmares. Some details of his nighttime horrors gradually come to light, and nightmares, which trouble several characters, remain an important theme. What do you think leads these men to have such nightmares? What is Crummey getting at by making them a steady presence in the story?
16. While Reilly is the only true pickpocket in River Thieves, the theme of thievery is present throughout the novel. In one way or another, both the European settlers and the Beothuk themselves assume the role of thieves. What acts of thievery are committed? Why, and what are their consequences?
17. The governor’s mansion in River Thieves is in a state of disrepair: “For years there had been attempts to locate and fix the leaks in the slate roof, all without any significant degree of success” (p. 301). Crummey compares this “irreparable damage” (p. 301) to Buchan’s struggles in his investigation. How are the relationships between the characters and cultures in the novel similarly marred by irreparable damage? Was there a point at which things could have been set right?
18. Both Cassie and Peyton assume a certain amount of responsibility for Mary. What characterizes the relationships of each with her? How do they view and interact with her differently?
Michael Crummey is the author of three books of poetry — Arguments with Gravity, Hard Light, Emergency Roadside Assistance — and a collection of short stories, Flesh and Blood. He is a winner of the Bronwen Wallace Award and was nominated for the 1998 Journey Prize. In 2001, River Thieves was nominated for the prestigious Giller Prize.
Born in Buchans, Newfoundland, Michael Crummey grew up there and in Wabush, Labrador. He now lives in St. John’s.
Q) Can you tell us how you became a writer?
A) I don’t know if it’s appropriate to phrase that question in the past tense. It implies I’ve arrived somewhere, when my sense of it is that I’m still working away in the dark. Hoping to be a writer every time I sit down to write.
I started seriously writing poems in my first year of university, which was a surprise to me at the time. I don’t remember having any desire to be a writer in high school. For some inscrutable reason, studying poetry in English 1000 triggered a compulsion to write poems myself. I wanted to write something that would make a reader respond in the way I was responding to writers like Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen, Ted Hughes, e. e. cummings, Al Purdy. Everything I wrote in those first few years was monumentally bad. Sometimes I think all that’s different now is that the law of averages is working in my favor. Write enough poetry and eventually some of it won’t suck.
After I dropped out of university, I worked at a number of part-time jobs and wrote in my free time. Began publishing in little magazines and journals across the country. I didn’t start writing fiction until my mid-twenties, years after I took up poetry. I wrote short stories for eight or nine years before I finally decided to make an attempt at a novel. Thought I was ready for it, after a long apprenticeship — something close to a real writer finally. That turned out to be a complete misunderstanding of where things stood. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as overmatched as I did when I was working on River Thieves. It seems a bit of a fluke to have finished it. From talking to other writers, I don’t expect to feel differently the next time out either.
Q) What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
A) I grew up in Buchans, a small mining town near Red Indian Lake in central Newfoundland. Many of the pivotal events that shaped relations between the Beothuk Indians and European settlers (including the kidnapping of Mary March and the murder of her husband in 1819) took place on that lake. Some sense of those stories has been a part of my life as long as I can remember, and I expect that the same is true to a greater or lesser degree for most Newfoundlanders.
Originally I was interested in writing about Shanawdithit, the last known Beothuk, who died in St. John’s in 1829. But as I began doing research, I was drawn more and more to the story of the Peytons, who played a central role in most of the interactions with the Beothuk in the decades leading up to their extinction. I was surprised by the starkly different attitudes father and son displayed towards the Beothuk. And I began writing a story that might account for some of those differences.
Q) What is it that you’re exploring in this book?
A) Well, a number of things, I guess. First of all, I’m dealing with the historical reality of the extinction of an entire race of people, the Beothuk, who were the indigenous inhabitants of Newfoundland. I was hoping the novel would give some sense of the enormity of that loss, and of the surprising (and somehow appalling) intimacy of the interactions between the Beothuk and the Europeans in those last decades. But I felt it would be wrong to write a novel about the Beothuk — to write as if we know more about them than we do, or to try to give them a voice that is absent from the historical record. Their absence, to my mind, is the point. The Beothuk are a shadowy presence in River Thieves, just as they are in what we know of the past.
The real challenge of the book for me was to explore the “emotional geography” of those historical events side-on. Slantways. The European characters in the novel, the settlers, are completely unable to communicate with one another, even when they have the best of intentions. Their interactions are based on false assumptions and bias and half-truths and misunderstandings. And the consequences of this — sometimes unforeseen, sometimes not — are usually heart-breaking. I wanted the part of the novel that is basically a little “soap opera” between the European characters to throw some light on the historical drama that is the spine of the book. I tried to avoid any kind of simplistic one-to-one correlation, but I hope the different narrative strands mirror one another back and forth.
In the end, River Thieves is a book about regret. For the individual characters, it’s usually regret of a personal nature. For me, and hopefully for a reader, it goes somewhere beyond that, encompasses something larger.
Q) Who is your favorite character in this book, and why?
A) I’ve heard writers talk about loving their characters as if they were real people. Before I started working on the novel I thought of that as being a bit precious, if not downright loony. Now, I’m afraid it would be unfair to pick a favorite, that I might hurt someone’s feelings. Jesus.
If I had to pick one character though, it would be Cassie. For the first time in my life, I had the sense I was writing a character who was obviously and unquestionably smarter than me. Not just smarter, though. Someone with a wit and an incandescent intelligence, with personal resources and strengths I don’t have at my disposal. I was happy to find her in there (wherever “there” might be), and I hope I did right by her.
Q) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
A) Would it be too glib to suggest having a few drinks first?
Q) Do you have a favorite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?
A) I haven’t actually been interviewed about River Thieves yet.
Q) What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?
A) Mmmmm, how about: “Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?”
Q) Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
A) No, not really. But I have been surprised by the range of response to my writing. And it seems more and more true to me that what we see in a book has as much to say about us as it does about what we’re reading. One reviewer of my book of stories, Flesh and Blood, called it the most genuinely erotic book he’d read in a long time, which I found puzzling. A friend of mine concluded that this particular reviewer obviously didn’t read much erotica. But since then other people have commented on the sex as one of the things that “stands out” in the stories. Obviously it’s there. But to a large extent it’s where the reader is coming from that determines how big a part it plays in their sense of the book. So I think I feel less ownership of the writing once it’s “out there” than I used to.
Q) Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
A) I’m not sure how to answer this without it being misleading. I haven’t been as conscious of being “influenced” by fiction writers as I have been by poets, partly because I came to fiction so much later and had gone a ways toward establishing a voice of some kind by then. So I’ll just list some writers whose books I’ve loved and leave it at that.
Timothy Findley (Famous Last Words, Not Wanted on the Voyage), Alice Munro (just about anything), Michael Ondaatje (Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Coming Through Slaughter), Jeanette Winterson (The Passion), Norman Levine (I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well), Raymond Carver (Cathedral), Mary Gaitskill (Because They Wanted To), Cormac McCarthy (now a major motion picture), Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities), David Adams Richards (Nights Below Station Street), Alistair MacLeod (The Lost Salt Gift of Blood), Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov), Virginia Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway, Between the Acts), Joyce (Dubliners), David Malouf (An Imaginary Life, Remembering Babylon), Don DeLillo (Libra), Kenzaburo Oe (An Echo of Heaven). A trio of nonfiction books about Newfoundland: Cassie Brown’s Death on the Ice, David MacFarlane’s The Danger Tree, Wayne Johnston’s Baltimore’s Mansion.
Of course this list is ridiculous. It could (and should) be thirty or forty times longer. Fifty times longer. I have a mind like a sieve.
Q) If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
A) Here’s the sad truth, which causes my mother no end of worry. I am completely unsuited for anything other than what I’m doing. If this writing thing doesn’t work out, I’m in big trouble.
Q) If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
A) This sounds like one of those “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” questions, which I’ve always been lousy at. Just not very imaginative, I guess (how’s that for an admission?). Let’s say I would want to have written one of the Song of Songs or the book of Job. Depending on the kind of day I’m having.