Michael Crummey 18 April 2012
Galore is a word not often used in everyday conversation – when I hear it I think of the east coast – it is from a Gaelic word meaning “to sufficiency” or “in plenty, abundantly”. The novel Galore has indeed sufficiency, and plenty and abundance. It is a rich, galloping story of galore and starvation – of body and soul - for the Newfoundland families we follow through six generations leading up to the Great War. This is a novel rich in character, language and the culture of Newfoundland’s history – and superstition. “Seven knots on a piece of string worn on your wrist to cure a toothache. A potato carried in a pocket to relieve rheumatism.”
Michael Crummey has created people who come alive on his pages – a fisherman, sitting alone by the water “overtaken by a puzzling nostalgia” for his long dead daughter – “and she was gone now, her childish secrets with her. There was no neater sum of how life unfolded, he thought, and he was ambushed by a crying jag, sobs tearing through him as ragged and relentless as a seizure”.
In June each year the priest is off to even more isolated communities “baptizing the children born and formalizing the marriages undertaken in his absence, saying a funeral mass for those who’d succumbed through the winter.” The days of plenty that came after Judah’s arrival are long since gone, now followed by “years of extravagant misery”. It is a grim trip that spring to the tiny outports where many are found dead of starvation in their beds – babies have been born and died.
But there is humour as well. When the first one room school house opens, a young man who has the mind of a child enjoys practicing his letters and numbers with the little children, and could be left by the teacher to supervise in her absence – until one day “she came back to find a row of boys standing with their pants around their ankles and James Woundy measuring their hairless peckers with her wooden ruler. The girls writing numbers in careful rows on their slates as James called them out.”
As we come toward the end of the novel those who we first met as infants are now men – many going off to war. Others are now elderly, and many have died. I loved my time with these people and was sorry to see this novel come to an end.
Galore was shortlisted for the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Wreckage, published in 2005, takes the reader to pre-World War II Newfoundland, to an outport village in the Fogo Islands. Aloysious – Wish – Furey meets Mercedes Parsons and our story begins. Wish is Catholic from the South Shore and Mercedes is Protestant. In those years this was a very big deal. They may both be Christians but it was no less scandalous to become involved with each other than if one had been a heathen. I grew up spending my summers in the Maritimes, so I am familiar with these attitudes – and the language used by the characters in Michael Crummey’s novels. The characters, their manner of speaking, the expressions used, are what you’d have heard across the kitchen table. A dipper for a drink of water – we had one in my grandmother’s kitchen – the expression “I’m sorry for your troubles” said to a mourner – crocheted doilies – does anyone under 60 even know what a doily is?! It is a world that is as lost to us as the outport villages, but it is brought to life in Wreckage. Woven into this storyline is the war in the Pacific, the experience of the prisoners of war there, the bombing of Nagasaki, and the life of a man who was not expected to return.
Flying out of Newfoundland, not to return for fifty years, Mercedes looks at the land of “craggy rock and the black circles of ice on the ponds, all of it bordered by the cold blue of the ocean” her home – one that you will discover reading Wreckage.
River Thieves, Crummey’s first novel, published in 2001 was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, and the 2001 Giller Prize. This is a novel that follows the lives of John Peyton Senior and his son, John Peyton, through the early to mid-1800’s. At that time there were still Beothuk “red Indians” populating some of the remote in the north-east and central parts of Newfoundland. The story takes us into that remote land and introduces us to both the native people and the settlers who have come to Newfoundland, for a variety of reasons, to make new lives.
The women at the centre of the novel are Cassie, who keeps house for the Peyton’s, Mary, a Beothuk woman who was captured in a conflict between her people and the settlers, and Annie, a Mi’Kmaq woman happily married to an Irish settler. These are women who reflect Michael Crummey’s sense of the women of Newfoundland “strong willed, knowing who they are and what they want” as are the women in all of his books.
River Thieves is a novel of the tragedy of misunderstanding, of lies and omissions that have the power to destroy. At this time there were British officers who spent winters in England and returned to Newfoundland to do business in the spring each year when their involvement – or interference – with the Peyton’s and the other settlers who hunt and fish in the area of the few remaining Beothuk settlements.
Don’t miss the opportunity to experience the pleasure of hearing Michael Crummey read from his novels, and talk about this writing to an audience at the Charles W. Stockey Centre on Wednesday 18 April.