The Innocents by Michael Crummey

Inventive, dark, pathos-evoking, this sensitive novel of survival and discovery asks just how far innocence stretches in a remote cove of Newfoundland.

“They were left alone in the cove then…. A body must bear what can’t be helped.” Michael Crummey (Sweetland; Galore) rivets and flays his readers with The Innocents, a novel of innocence and hardship and what is intrinsically human.

“They were still youngsters that winter,” begins the story, in the season when siblings Evered and Ada lose their family: first their baby sister dies, then their mother and then their father. Baby Martha is buried. Their father takes their mother out to sea, bringing back her dress for young Ada: “You’ll have need of these,” he tells her, but she “held her hands behind her back and shook her head fiercely.” When their father dies, Evered takes him out to sea, as he had their mother. When Evered returns, spent, his hair has turned stark white: “As the driven snow, their mother would have said of it.”

Following these events of just the first five pages, the two children fumble through the tasks their parents had struggled to complete. Evered fishes in a small boat in the Newfoundland cove that is all they have ever known. Ada gardens, after both children haul seaweed and caplin (small fish), turning them stinking into the scant soil. They pick berries in the fall, collect caplin in the spring, fish for cod all summer and salt it throughout the season. Every winter, the weather forces them to rebuild the stage at which they clean and salt fish. Twice a year they expect a visit from The Hope, the schooner that rules their lives, which their father called The Abandon Hope All Ye. This vessel brings flour, peas, salt meat, tea, molasses and eventually rum, on credit against salt cod. The first time Evered must row out to meet the schooner alone is the first time he has seen a man not his father. Evered does not know his age, but the beadle aboard The Hope tells him he is 11. Ada is younger.

Against all odds, and to the continuing surprise of the crew of The Hope, the youngsters survive that first year, and another, and on. They learn best practices, and the few rare visitors teach them new skills: how to fire their father’s old flintlock, enabling Evered to shoot fowl; how to trap fox, otter, beaver for their pelts and precious meat. They muddle through their own changing bodies and desires, with disturbing if foreseeable results. They eventually hear that others now call the place they live Orphan Cove.

A gifted writer, Crummey shows imagination and compassion for his young protagonists, and a care for the oddities of language specific to time and place: the grieving children drink “bare-legged tea,” which in Newfoundland is tea without saucer, sugar or accompaniment. The Innocents is deeply pained and enchanting, full of small joys and victories as well as the pressing multitude of aches and challenges that mere living offers to two babes alone in this fierce environment. This searing novel will keep readers engrossed in its harsh world long after its hopeful conclusion.


This review originally ran in the October 18, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 wish rocks.

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