Michael Crummey was in his St. John’s kitchen baking molasses buns and deliberately not working on a new book when, one day in February, 2018, his telephone rang, interrupting the effort.
Martha Kanya-Forstner, Crummey’s long-time editor at Doubleday Canada, was on the line. “She was just checking in to see what I was up to and to nudge me, I guess,” Crummey recalled in a recent interview. “They hadn’t heard from me in a long time.”
When the telephone interrupted his baking, Crummey was in his fifth consecutive bookless year, despite being under contract to produce new work. The writer has held bestseller status since thumping onto Canada’s literary scene nearly 20 years ago with his first novel, River Thieves. That book was shortlisted for the prestigious Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize; among readers, it stoked a new hunger for Crummey’s particular re-creations of latter-day Newfoundland.
He has previously described that place as “a world of isolated, tightly knit communities that relied on the fishery and each other for survival.” The effort of rendering it so flawlessly in his debut novel, though, wrung out Crummey and left the novelist wondering whether he had any ink left in him. It turns out that he has quite a deep well, but he must be judicious with withdrawals. Thus, the three novels Crummey has produced since River Thieves – The Wreckage, Galore and Sweetland, each also highly acclaimed – have four or five years of space between them. “Every time I finish a book I feel like I’m probably never going to write another one,” Crummey said. “I definitely felt that after Sweetland – I was ready not to be a writer for a while.”
That “while” had stretched several years by the time Crummey found himself in his kitchen on the phone to Kanya-Forstner. She has been the lead editor on all of his novels to date and he trusts her implicitly and so issued a confession. “I had written a three- or four-page opening to a novel,” he recounted. “And then I had lost my nerve.”
At Kanya-Forstner’s encouragement, Crummey sent her the orphaned pages. Readers will get their turn to set eyes on those passages when they crack open the first pages of his fifth book, The Innocents, which hit bookstores in August.
The Innocents is the coming-of-age story of Evered and Ada Best, young siblings who find themselves orphaned and alone in a remote, isolated cove in northern Newfoundland after their parents and infant sister succumb to fatal illnesses. In true Crummey fashion, the tale is set in a rural, bygone place that is simultaneously so brutal and bewitching that the island itself becomes a complex, unruly character.
Rich with visceral descriptions and outport dialogue that transports readers in both place and time, the story traces the siblings’ bone-tiring bid to stave off death as they grow up in the only place they know as home. Left with little more than an unreliable skiff and a set of memorized idioms to guide them (“A body must bear what can’t be helped”), the siblings battle starvation, the relentless cruelty of rain, cold and winter, and, eventually, a foreign form of isolation: the unexplained onset of puberty. Crummey deftly portrays the physical elements of adolescence as yet another mystifying imposition of nature, but one that both alienates the Best siblings and irrevocably binds them.
Plumbing the nuances of Ada and Evered’s helpless surrender to the demands of their bodies – and the life-altering consequences that result – required a bravery that Crummey said he was not sure he could muster when the idea for The Innocents began to fester.
It rooted seven or eight years ago, when the author, searching through the provincial archives, stumbled across the mention of a travelling 18th-century clergyman. He discovered an orphaned brother and sister living in an isolated northern cove, but when he approached them to inquire about their circumstance, the clergyman was driven away by the boy at gunpoint.
“The sister was pregnant. And [the clergyman] assumed, quite rightly I imagine, that the brother was the father,” Crummey recalled. “I immediately thought there was a book there. But I wanted no part of it. It just seemed like a subject that was so fraught and so complicated … I wasn’t sure I had it in me.”
Eventually, he realized that his hesitancy was precisely the signal that he did. “I’ve always said that if the idea for a book doesn’t frighten me, I probably shouldn’t write it,” Crummey said, laughing. “I just had to gird up my loins and wade in.”
The far-flung outports to which his fictional efforts take him are familiar territory for Crummey. Although he grew up in Buchans, a mining town nowhere near salt water, his stories regularly unfold in what he calls “the Newfoundland before me.” That occasionally means the Newfoundland of centuries past and nearly always requires an isolated outport setting.
"Newfoundland culture is outport culture,” Crummey said. “My parents were both born and raised in outports. Everybody in Buchans was from an outport. I always say that I didn’t live in an outport, but the outports made me who I am. To try and understand this place, I think, you have to write about outport culture,” he said.
That there could be any other way of living has hardly occurred to Ada or Evered Best when the children begin coming to terms with the death of their parents (their father is the last to go; the siblings are so aggrieved by this that they leave his rigid corpse resting in bed alongside them for some time). Their subsequent effort to survive in a place that both soothes and torments them is leavened by a trickle of seasonal visitors that deliver Ada and Evered their only glimpses into the outside world.
“Whatever washes up on the beach becomes part of their story,” Crummey said. “That’s a very Newfoundland thing. It has always been very isolated. But in some ways, the whole world kind of washes up on the beach in bits and pieces.”
Ava and Evered’s occasional visitors pierce their isolation, but, with every departure, it floods back with a new force that strengthens with adolescence.
“I do remember clearly what a lonely, terrifying experience it was to become a sexual being as a child and how completely isolating it was,” Crummey said. “I was really interested in telling the story of these two children who are completely sheltered from the outside world and sheltered from their own natures,” he said. “Part of the reason their story stayed with me was … because I just could not imagine how lonely it must have been for them to deal with that particular part of their own experience.”
Writing about it gave Crummey a taste of loneliness, too. Once Kanya-Forstner gave him the green light to pursue the story, it came out of him in a torrent. “I [wrote] every day for the next 3½ or four months,” he said. “It felt like an out of body experience. It happened so quickly … I’ve kind of forgotten the space I was in while writing it.”
That sounds like something akin to giving birth.