With novel The Innocents, Michael Crummey explores strength, spirit and survival in 18th century Newfoundland
This interview originally aired on Sept. 21, 2019.
The fiction of Michael Crummey has revolved around the rich history and heritage surrounding the place of his birth, Newfoundland and Labrador. His novels Sweetland and Galore were both set in the region, as is his latest, The Innocents.
The Innocents is a tale about a young brother and sister who live in isolation in a Newfoundland cove during the 18th century, surviving on knowledge their parents left behind.
Crummey won the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award for his novel The Innocents. The 2019 novel was also shortlisted for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the 2019 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.
Crummey spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing The Innocents.
"I came across an old Newfoundland newspaper and found a paragraph-long account about a clergyman. He was travelling along the coast and happened on a brother and sister living alone in a cove. The sister was pregnant. The clergyman assumed — and quite rightly I'm sure — that the brother was the father.
"Being a clergyman, he had a few things to say about that. The brother ended up driving him off with a rifle. I knew immediately that was a story without giving it a second thought. It never left me, the notion of those two children — what life must have been like and how they ended up in that circumstance.
Every book I've written has felt completely different in terms of how it's come about, how it's been written and how I feel about it afterwards.
"Every book I've written has felt completely different in terms of how it's come about, how it's been written and how I feel about it afterwards. This book happened quickly. I had this notion about these two siblings for a long time. But I didn't want to go near it because of the fraught subject matter. When I decided to do it, I just wanted it done. For this book, I wrote every day for three and a half months."
Employment and labour
"I was thinking of my own father when writing this book. He started working with his father in the Labrador fishery when he was nine. He never had a childhood. This was in the 1930s into the 1940s, not the 18th century. I imagine that those children would have been pretty well versed in work. Everybody had work just to survive.
"In the book, the two main characters — being 11 — are pretty close to an adult, in terms of work. But they know almost nothing about the world and nothing about life outside that cove. They have nothing to fall back on except their own wits."
Down by the ocean
"This book is an adventure story, in a weird way — almost like a road novel. The characters don't move but the road is the ocean, the tides and the currents. Whatever comes by becomes the next chapter in the book.
A lot of the book was about getting inside the heads of these children who are so innocent and ignorant of the world.
"A lot of the book was about getting inside the heads of these children, who are so innocent and ignorant of the world. How they would try to make sense of things they have no words for. They don't have a word for anything that happens between them as they grow older. As they get older, they become more of a mystery to themselves."
Michael Crummey's comments have been edited for length and clarity.