Glen Argan: Novel reveals dangers of an insular world

  • July 16, 2021

Some may take Michael Crummey’s brilliant 2019 novel The Innocents as a piece of nostalgia for a lost way of life in Newfoundland’s outports. But The Innocents offers insights much greater than the nostalgic pacifier Make Newfoundland Great Again. It depicts an unrelenting struggle for survival by two children left orphaned when their parents and baby sister die within a matter of months.

Instead of moving to the closest village, Evered and Ada Best decide to stick it out in the lonely cove which is the only place they have ever known. The orphans have never seen a man other than their father and the only woman other than their mother they have encountered is the midwife who delivered their sister. They are as isolated as isolated can be.

The pair are ill-equipped to survive the brutal weather. Ada, nine at the start of the story, can start a fire, cook and pick berries. That is about it. Evered, 11, has rudimentary knowledge of seal-hunting and fishing, but far less about preparing the fish for sale. A rusted, broken old flintlock sits by the door, unused for years because the children’s father’s eyesight was too poor to shoot even a stationary target. The kids are doomed and would have died if not for occasional incursions from the outside world.

So we have a book about in-breeding, not just biological in-breeding, but mainly social and cultural. Humans need other people and their experience to flourish, even to survive.

Early on, Evered asks the bookkeeper on The Hope, the supply ship which comes twice a year to buy fish and sell supplies, to provide him with a helper. But when one is delivered a few years later, Evered rejects him out of hand. He and Ada don’t want anyone’s help.

Ada, meanwhile, spends much of her time conversing with the deceased baby, Martha, in hopes that Martha’s ghost will help them through their trials. Ada simply needs someone beside Evered to talk with.

Relations between Evered and Ada begin well, but over the years deteriorate. People need to hear diverse voices in order to thrive.

Apparently doomed by a horrendous autumn storm, the Bests luck out when they discover detritus from a shipwreck along the shore. They salvage enough food and clothing from the wreck to make it through the winter. They are blessed further when a schooner comes by, and the captain and his housekeeper spend nearly a week with them. The captain fixes the gun and teaches Evered how to shoot. Now he has another way to get food in the winter.

Another ship comes to Orphans’ Cove, as it has become known in the village, in search of a tall tree trunk to build a new mast. The captain, John Warren, becomes a friend to Ada while Evered finds a form of liberation through his dealings with the vulgar crew. A wild drunken party in which he is tossed into the ocean is the best night of Evered’s life.

While outsiders are key to the orphans’ survival and personal growth, they are a mixed blessing. They bring exploitation, illness, alcohol and a disturbing scene of death.

Crummey raises his tale to the level of art with his painstaking efforts to cast the dialogue in the forms of traditional Newfoundlanders, likely those of the 18th or 19th century. He has spent long hours learning from The Dictionary of Newfoundland English and the 1785 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, both of which he credits in his acknowledgments. More than vocabulary, his grammar and syntax also ring true.

Although set in times long ago, The Innocents speaks to social and cultural situations of the early 21st century. Ours is an age of increasing nationalism, of pulling back from addressing global needs to focus on more insular worlds of clan and nation. We had thought the global communications revolution of television and the Internet would open us up to knowledge and wisdom from diverse cultures. To some extent, it is doing that.

But anyone who has spent time reading the comments sections of online newspapers will know the bulk of such opinion is based on ignorance and prejudice founded on conspiracy theories and no greater knowledge than that of John Warren’s vulgar sailors. The future of democracy is at stake as we withdraw into insularities indicative of a new dark age. Cultural in-breeding has become a threat to the future of civilization.

(Argan writes from Edmonton.)

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