The Sunday Edition

Newfoundland novelist Michael Crummey on the "appalling confusion" of childhood

Michael Crummey's latest book, The Innocents, is the story of an orphaned brother and sister struggling to survive, utterly alone, on a remote cove in 18th Century Newfoundland.
Michael Crummey's new book, The Innocents, is the story of an orphaned brother and sister struggling to survive, utterly alone, on a remote cove in 18th Century Newfoundland. (Doubleday Canada, Holly Hogan)
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Michael Crummey's latest book came into being almost by happenstance. 

Years ago, while doing some research in the St. John's archives, he came upon a reference to an 18th century clergyman who discovered two young siblings living on their own in an isolated cove. When the clergyman approached them to ask how they came to be there on their own, the boy chased him off at gunpoint. 

That anecdote lodged itself in Michael Crummey's head, and eventually led him to write his fifth work of fiction, a novel called The Innocents

The book is set in the 1700's. Ada and Evered find themselves orphaned and alone in an isolated cove on the north shore of Newfoundland. Their parents and an infant sister have died, leaving the children to cope with — and create — a world unto themselves. 

The Innocents provides Crummey with a rich landscape for exploring childhood and all its mysteries and discovery, fear and confusion. His previous books — River Thieves, The Wreckage, Galore and Sweetland — have been nominated for, or won, prestigious prizes all over the world. 

Michael Crummey lives in St John's, and spoke to The Sunday Edition's guest host David Gray. Here's part of that conversation.

I mentioned that archival reference that inspired the book. What was it about that that stayed with you?

There was one salient detail, which was that the sister was pregnant. And the clergyman got up on his high horse about that and assumed — probably quite rightly — that the brother was the father. That's why he was driven off by the brother. 

I immediately thought that there was a story there to tell and I immediately dismissed it because I didn't want to touch that with a ten-foot pole. But it has stayed with me. And I think the thing that made it stay with me was my sense of what an appalling circumstance those children would have found themselves in — to be orphaned in a place without any outside influences at all, and then having to try and discover who they were and how the world worked. 

And I do think childhood for all of us, to one extent or another, is about that appalling confusion. 

Crummey's new novel The Innocents takes place in Newfoundland. But the author said that, unlike in his previous works, Newfoundland was incidental to the story. (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Your protagonists in this story, Ada and Evered, live in a cove that is "the heart and sum of all creation in their eyes," you write. That isolation separates them from the world but does it also separate them from your own childhood. Did you live anything similar in your upbringing?

Of course it was completely different in the sense that I was surrounded by friends and family and all sorts of other influences — like television and radio, and when I was moving into my teen years whatever porn mags we could scrounge up at the dump.

But what really struck me about the siblings that I discovered in the archives was the sense that they would have had nothing — and what would that have meant for them? So I kind of thought of them as a sort of Adam and Eve, who are put somewhere with a certain sense of what the world is and how it operates and then discover as time goes on that it actually operates in quite different ways, although they don't understand why. 

I wanted to write a story of how it is for all children, in some ways, to grow up with that appalling confusion about those those kinds of things.

[The book] also speaks to the place Newfoundland during that time. There's a fictional port nearby called Mockbeggar, which always just sort of glimmers as a possible out for the kids, though it's never realized. Can you explain to me what that outport lifestyle is all about and how that affects the book?

I have said for decades now that all of my writing in some ways has been about Newfoundland and an attempt to create a picture of that world that is true to the place. This book felt a little different to me. Of course, as you say, Newfoundland is front and centre and that outport life is really what their lives revolve around. But it almost felt like Newfoundland was incidental to the story in some ways, because I wasn't interested in trying to make Ada and Evered feel like real Newfoundlanders. It was the story of the brother and sister and I felt like that story could have been written anywhere in the western world. 

But having said that, of course, it happened in Newfoundland. And so a big part of the book for me was trying to create a sense of what that life was like — how much it asked of people and in particular of children. I've written about my father's life quite a bit, which was in the 1930s and 1940s in Newfoundland, and he always said he never had a childhood. He started working with his father when he was nine and going down to the Labrador to fish, and even before that he would have been involved in digging the gardens and whatever other kind of animal husbandry was required. So that was part of what I was thinking of for these children as well — what they would have been left with would have been a subsistence lifestyle that in the best of circumstances would have been a really incredibly difficult way to get by in the world. And then they would have been left alone with it, at the age of 11 and 9. 

So I was trying to give a sense of how they moved through the seasons and what each season offers in terms of subsistence and challenge. And what changes in that sort of never-ending pattern is themselves and their sense of who they are — and the mystery of who they are, which increases for both of them as they go through those seasons. 

I do think childhood for all of us, to one extent or another, is about that appalling confusion.- Michael Crummey

In examining the relationship between these two siblings, has it affected the way you think about childhood and siblings?

Yeah, it's an interesting process and I'm not really sure how all the pieces fit together. I know that part of what I was wanting to explore in this book was my own sense of what I was like as a child, and my own sense of fumbling blindly through the dark and trying to claw my way into some semblance of adulthood. 

So I think on the other side of that, I would have to say, yes, I feel differently about myself and about my childhood having written the book. And I think that's probably true for everything I've written. I often don't know exactly what I've hooked into. I hope in the process of writing each book that I reach a point where I know I've got something, but I often don't know what it is until after the book is finished and often long after the book is finished. But with this book I knew from the start that there was a very personal side to it, that it was my own remembrance of my own appalling ignorance that I was dealing with.

Carson McCullers once wrote that "the hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes." How does a cruel circumstance affect these children?

I think in many ways. When I started writing the book, I wanted to do right by these two children. I wanted to write honestly about how they might have come into this circumstance they find themselves in at the end of the book, where the sister is pregnant. But I also was desperately hoping not to be exploitative in the process of doing that and wanted them to feel like real characters making the best of an impossible situation.

So I feel like the cruel beginning — and it was unbelievably cruel, and the opening of the book is probably among the darkest three or four pages I've ever written. But I feel like they rose to that challenge, that they both had it in them to want to live and to want to care for each other. And I think that's something that never changes throughout the book. Through all of the complications and through all of the business that they end up getting into and not knowing how to deal with, they never stopped loving each other. 

This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity. To hear the whole interview with Michael Crummey, click 'listen' above.

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