River Thieves is a tale of early 19th century Newfoundland, when the native Beothuk still roamed in small groups. The English settlers, some of who are transported criminals, face many hardships eking out a living trapping and fishing. Michael Crummey brings all these elements together in this, his first novel. Told from a variety of viewpoints, the story centres around the capture of a young Beothuk woman. Her interaction with her captors is poignant as she struggles to make herself understood. She affects them all in different and unexpected ways, teaching them something about themselves.
The complex characters walk right off the pages, while the reader feels the cold, hears the water crashing on the shore and tastes the fried fish that was a diet staple. There is no doubting the time period or its realities. Of particular note is the mind- and body- numbing winter journey to the Beothuk’s winter camp. The tale unfolds gradually, interrupted from time to time by flashbacks filling in character backstory. A less talented writer might not have been able to make this work, but Crummey succeeds admirably.
The only quibble is with the rather dark atmosphere, as most of the characters suffer in some way. Though this adds to the verisimilitude, it would have made the book difficult to finish had Crummey not been such an accomplished storyteller.