The Innocents at Home

Canadian Orphans in the Blue Ice Lagoon

With The Innocents, author Michael Crummey goes against modern storytelling instincts to ratchet up stimulus, choosing instead to render a tale so finely hewn you realize what we give up when we replace drama with sound and fury.

The Innocents is Crummey’s fifth novel–Scotiabank nominated his first, River Thieves,  for Canada’s Giller Prize, and he’s also published several books of poetry.

The book’s premise is simple enough. Two children, the older boy Evered Best and his younger sister Ada, lose their parents. Orphaned in remote Newfoundland, they must figure out their survival with little guidance in a harsh, wintry landscape. Crummey doesn’t specify the era, but the presence of merchant ships and archaic language suggests the 19th century. Imagine The Blue Lagoon, but too cold for sexy “primitive” costumes.

Even before their parents die, the siblings have their antenna up for signals from the outside world, especially when the eccentric Mary Oram shows up to deliver their sister Martha, who dies as an infant:

“[Mary Oram] knotted the string three times and put her hand over the top of it on Sarah Best’s stomach. She said, ‘May earth bear on you with all its might and main.’ And she carried on repeating that line often enough that the words started to lose their meaning in Ada’s ears. When Mary Oram finally got to her feet she tucked the string into a pocket at the front of Sarah Best’s dress.”

The world is unimaginably wide outside the siblings’ cove, but by the time the rest of their family dies, they’ve already internalized their most valuable survival lesson: piece together whatever you can from whatever washes ashore.

Such naivete in their harrowing circumstances leads to plenty of conflict, but through Crummey’s well-wrought prose and poetic tendencies, nothing feels contrived. The children’s chief concern is food supply, which depletes to dangerous levels through the cold months. “Their gums had gone grey and spongy with the deprivations of the spring and there was a steady taste of blood in their mouths, their teeth loose enough they could work them like hinges with their tongues.”

Instead of flash, Crummey uses the more subtle power of simile to help generate narrative momentum and keep the reader intrigued. The kids’ incessant hunger, desire for contact with the outside world, and budding sexualities mean he doesn’t need extra bells and whistles.

Drastic straits sometimes lead to bad decisions, such as when Ada gets sick, forcing the pair to rely on outsiders who seem to know what they’re doing.

“By the time Mrs. Brace was delivered to the cove with the black bag and candles and shotgun Truss had opened a vein in Ada’s arm and taken off twelve ounces of blood. He handed the bowl of nearly black liquid to the boy beside him. Evered could feel the warmth of it seeping through the bowl’s cold clay.”

Through such compelling detail, Crummey renders the children’s plight viscerally, not relying on over-the-top stimulus so much as a reader’s inherent curiosity, empathy. The book is not a demand for attention, but an invitation, and once you’re there, you don’t want to leave.

Many modern readers require high stimulation from the get-go. They have no time for the patient ramping up of expectation. They demand immediate return on investment for the simple act of cracking a spine. This leads many novelists to make sure to meet this stimulation criterion before worrying about anything else. If you don’t, you risk not having an audience.

With The Innocents, Crummey proves that attention to language and traditional storytelling elements don’t sacrifice reader attention, and the results make you feel more rewarded than manipulated.

(Doubleday, November 12, 2019)

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Art Edwards

Art Edwards’s reviews have appeared in Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Kenyon Review, among many others. He was cofounder of the Refreshments. His recently finished novel is called Nineteen Ways to Destroy Your Rock Band.

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