“The Innocents” in Michael Crummey’s newest novel are Evered and his little sister Ada. They might well have grown up innocent enough, but the death of their parents and their newborn sister Martha from disease during one exceptionally long and cold winter leave the children with very little sure knowledge about anything.
The novel is set far up the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, in an isolated cove in the early 1800s. The descriptions of the landscape parallel the bleakness of the children’s lives as they spend their first spring and summer following what little they collectively learned from their parents. With the breaking of the first ice, they hunt seal, birds and small rodents, then move on to fish and finally harvest berries, skinning, drying and preserving as best as they are able.
A ship makes its way along the coast in the early fall, making trades with the children for flour, molasses, and a little rum. This creates an endless debt for items not worthy of the exchange.
One season follows the next as the children fall into a pattern of providing for each other and finding their way together. But as they grow older they also mature, and their innocence becomes broken in ways that are beyond their understanding. A clumsy sexual awakening betrays the depth of their isolation. “Pleasure and shame are the world’s currencies in equal measure” and “no indulgence in the world is cut without regret.”
Crummey invites the reader to sit for a time in the harsh Canadian wilderness, to imagine two orphans who find little reprieve from the hard work of just existing and surviving from one season to the next. The ending is satisfying, as much as it is unexpected, and leaves much to consider. A recommended book club choice for good conversation. (Penguin Random House)