Michael Crummey’s enchanting, but disturbing, new novel, The Innocents, is set amid a hardscrabble Garden of Eden hugging an isolated cove along the coast of northern Newfoundland.
The fable-like story was inspired by a supposedly true event from the late 18th century when a traveling clergyman discovered a young brother and sister living alone, for years, in similar circumstances.
Crummey has fictionalized what became an unsettling discovery for that clergyman and, come Oct. 27, he will attend the Ottawa International Writers Festival to discuss the issues raised by a book that will undoubtedly leave some readers with the clergyman’s same sense of discomfort.
The famed Newfoundland author found the clergyman’s one-paragraph reference in a document buried in the provincial archives. For years, the author of such previous Newfoundland-based novels as River Thieves, Galore and Sweetland wrestled with the notion of turning that paragraph into a novel. Finally, he has spun a tale of two illiterate pre-teens completely left to their own devices when their parents and a baby sister die of an unnamed illness. A spot on the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist resulted, along with a nomination for the Writers Trust Fiction Prize.
There are no neighbours. The closest town, Mockbeggar, is several hours away by rowboat. The children have never been there. The only person they have met from Mockbeggar is a witch-like midwife who was summoned to help deliver their late sister. Their only regular contact with people is the twice yearly visit by a merchant ship, The Hope, where, on board, they trade flour, molasses, tea and other necessities for their haul of fish and furs.
The children, Evered and Ada, bear names strikingly similar to Adam and Eve. Clearly, the author wants us to compare the children’s experiences to that of the Biblical characters living in an idyllic Garden of Eden, where bliss ends after tasting the forbidden fruit; shame is discovered in their nakedness; paradise is lost.
In The Innocents (Doubleday Canada), the children manage, barely, to survive cold, hunger and isolation for years. But they are content, at least in the beginning. They know little of the world beyond and are not bothered by their ignorance. They are tough and determined. They fish, they bake bread, they scavenge, they make do.
“The cove was the heart and sum of all creation in their eyes and they were alone there with the little knowledge of the world passed on haphazard and gleaned by chance,” Crummey writes.
Their paradise, such as it was, is disrupted when puberty hits. The children don’t understand the changes to their bodies and to their yearnings. Experimentation is pleasurable but shameful. The children are confused and frightened with no adults to help them cope. An overlay of dread leaves readers fearful paradise will come crashing down one day.
This is surely Crummey’s best book since his debut novel River Thieves, another historical novel set in rural Newfoundland. No one captures the cadences, minutiae and lore of old Newfoundland like Crummey. Every sentence is exquisite in this story unfurled like the words of an ancient Newfoundland sailor spinning tales around a nighttime campfire.
The prose in The Innocents immediately pulls you into the story. “They were still youngsters that winter,” the book begins. “They lost their baby sister before the first snowfall.” You have no choice but to continue reading.
The language is salted with archaic Newfoundland slang, “God’s nails” being a favourite expletive for Evered and Ada. Crummey says he wrote the book with the help of The Dictionary of Newfoundland English. That book would also undoubtedly help readers, too.
Ada is the most memorable of the two children. “She’s as stubborn as a mule,” Everud frequently says, without really knowing what a mule is. She’s not only stubborn and adventurous, but mystical, hoarding a strange collection of shells, bones and other artifacts and carrying on one-way conversations daily with her dead sister Martha. Ada simply can not fathom leaving their seaside shack, in what sailors have dubbed Orphan Cove, because Martha is buried nearby, alongside some man who may be a dead seaman washed to shore or maybe someone the father murdered.
To protect Ada from the roaming hands of lusty sailors, Everud, alone, rows out to The Hope for the semi-annual trading. Ada watches all from shore through a spyglass salvaged from an ice-bound shipwreck containing the remains of sailors cannibalized by starving mates.
One time peering through the glass, Ada sees a handsome young sailor aboard The Hope. She fastens onto the notion of him like a drowning sailor to a lifeboat. She longs to be with him, just as Everud fantasizes about sexual antics with a much older, big-bosomed mistress of a traveling adventurer who unexpectedly and luckily appears in the cove to nurse Ada through a near fatal illness.
So, is The Innocents believable? If you think about it too carefully, the ability of two pre-teen children to survive on their own in such a forbidding environment stretches credulity. But it is not impossible.
The Innocents is based upon a supposedly true story, richly embroidered to become art, a story with the lessons learned from those other innocents who, so long ago, lived, some might say unbelievably, in that other magical, Biblical kingdom called the Garden of Eden.
• Michael Crummey appears Oct. 27 at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. For details: writersfestival.org.
• The 2019 Giller Prize finalists will be in Ottawa Oct. 16 at 6 p.m. at the National Gallery of Canada. For more: writersfestival.ca