Crimes Against My Brother, by David Adams Richards

by

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

One thing can be said for certain: in the literary world, the Miramichi River, the rugged terrain surrounding it and the people who live there are every bit as much “David Adams Richards country” as southwestern Ontario belongs to Alice Munro. A list of his publications, both fiction and non-fiction, numbers more than 20 and most are centred on the Miramichi. And those works have produced recognition, spread over decades: A Governor-General’s Award for Fiction in 1988 (Nights Below Station Street), another one for non-fiction in 1998 (Lines on the Water: A Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi) and a Giller Prize in 2000 (Mercy Among The Children).

I was born in 1948, Richards in 1950, so his writing career and my reading one have certainly overlapped. I don’t count him as one of my favorite authors but over the decades I have read a number of his books (I can’t say exactly how many), although Crimes Against My Brother is the first since the KfC blog started 5 1/2 years ago. Let’s just say that I am willing to venture into the Miramichi valley every now and then, but the fictional version is not one of my favorite destinations.

Richards’ Miramichi is not a particularly pleasant place. At the top end of the scale, it is an environmentally stunning one — a world-famous salmon river surrounded by incredible stands of timber. That produces the mid-level conflict — lumbering companies who strip the land, endanger the river and its tributaries and cruelly exploit their workers. And right at the bottom, we have the people who struggle to live there. As is the case with so many people who are born and live their lives in resource-rich areas, they are pawns in the global economy and that powerless status becomes amplified in the way they relate to each other.

Crimes Against My Brother features all of those elements. If you haven’t yet ventured into Richards’ Miramichi it would not be my recommendation as the place to start (Mercy Among The Children would be my choice) — if as a reader you have been here before (and appreciated the experience), you will want to explore this latest part of the ongoing saga.

Here is the author introducing this latest Miramichi volume:

Ian Preston had some good times with his two cousins, Evan Young and Harold Dew.

There were two or three things that united them, as if they were tethered together in the hold of a ship.

One, each boy grew to manhood on the Bonny Joyce-Clare’s Longing stretch of the river.

Two, all three know Joyce Fitzroy and Lonnie Sullivan, all of them had to work for Sullivan and all had a chance at getting Joyce Fitzroy’s inheritance. But the one who didn’t seek it got it. That fact is a strange anomaly in the heavens, one that might make us believe or disbelieve. That is, no matter how things happen, some will say yes, there is a God, and others will say no, this proves no God exists. As for God himself — he has already made up his mind.

The narrator of the novel is himself a product of the Miramichi from the same era. He is from the same generation as Ian, Evan and Harold but “escaped” to college in New York, went on to Yale and is now a tenured professor but his heart and soul (and this is typical of Richards’ work) remain in the Bonny Joyce-Clare’s Longing stretch of the river:

I spoke to my students often — all of whom had written their interminable essays, their left-leaning theories on the dispossessed, their brilliant studies of our disenfranchised, every piece so polished you would think it is publishable in The Globe and Mail — about these three. Yet I realized that not one of my students had ever slept in a room with rats walking across the floor like Ian Preston had. Not one of them, at fourteen, had stood up against men coming in at night drunk to fuck his mother, like Evan Young. Not one had carried a water bucket up a gangplank, or tossed wood all day until dark, like Harold Dew. Not one had cut his own wood for the winter, trapped beaver against a black brook, killed an animal with a stick. Or gone at twelve years of age to work for Lonnie Sullivan. That is, even as I taught these students, these pleasant, affable upwardly mobile young men and women, I wondered what could their inestimable essays ever say beyond what I myself had known in my blood by the time I was ten years old? And why did my mother and father want this for me — this world where I had become something of a figure of merit? To fuss and preen over me when I came home?

In the world that Richards creates, the powerless people in this valley — not just the three cousins and the narrator, but everyone who appears — have three options about the fundamental source they will choose as a guide for their lives:

  • They can choose to devote themselves to God as Sydney Henderson has (he was a central character in Mercy Among The Children, a minor one here). He made a pact with God, but as you can tell from the first excerpt his God was not a particularly beneficent one. There are others in this book who have a made a similar pact — although not Ian, Evan or Harold.
  • Or you can reject God, as the three boys did when they were caught for three days in the terrible ice storm of 1974 on Good Friday Mountain where they were cutting and hauling Christmas trees for Lonnie Sullivan. In a blood brother ceremony before they are saved, they reject Sydney’s God and vow to survive on their own. That puts them at the mercy of the mercantile, commerce-cheating, global-economy world — a world that has little patience for the children of the Miramichi.
  • And then there’s the “get by as best you can” option, the choice of most of the secondary characters in the book — Annette Brideau, the Robb sisters, the narrator himself, to mention just a few. This choice has its problems as well, since both the malevolent God of Sydney and the equally malevolent powers of commerce keep intruding on the Miramichi — “as best you can” is an ever-moving target.
  • Crimes Against My Brother will follow the three boys through to adulthood — a concise summary of the story would describe it as “relentlessly bleak”. Two of them, in fact, will “succeed” in conventional economic terms; they do not in any way “succeed” in finding an enjoyable life. The narrative stream pretty much moves from one upheaval to another, following the stories of each of the three.

    Like the other Richards’ novels that I have read, this is a look at the inherently powerless, how life treats them and how they respond. There are truly despicable creatures in the novel (Lonnie) and there are sadly misguided ones (Annette), but for the most part it features decent people doing their best to find a decent life — and almost always failing, sometimes from their own weaknesses, more often because of external forces.

    From my experience, that seems to be consistent with Richards ongoing exploration of the Miramichi and its people and one can hardly fault him for returning to this world and those who live there. If Alice Munro looks at her part of Canada through sepia-toned glasses as some have observed, Richards looks at his with razor-sharp, penetrating precision — life in his Miramichi Valley is definitely not pleasant, but it is a story that deserves to be told.

    8 Responses to “Crimes Against My Brother, by David Adams Richards”

    1. sharkell Says:

      I read The Friends of Meager Fortune a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. I’m not sure I would enjoy too many books centred around the same theme but I’m certainly willing to read one or two more.

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    2. Carole Besharah Says:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts Kevin. I have a feeling that your reaction to this book was similar to mine… You are not quite praising it, but are neither dismissing it. I DID enjoy this book with its lyrical language and thought-provoking themes. Still, the narrative was overwrought with happenstance. Time and time again, the characters were coincidentally entwined in the same events at the same time. This circular plot was distracting. Still a good novel, but not his best. Check out my discussion of this book: http://grandbarda.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/a-tale-of-betrayal-crimes-against-my-brother-by-david-adams-richards/ Cheers!

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      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I agree we had the same ambivalent response. I very much wanted to engage with any or all three of the cousins but the author’s portrayal of them never achieved that — things just kept getting worse. And the characters that I wanted more of (Annette and Lonnie in particular) were reduced to supporting roles.

        Still, I appreciated what Richards was trying to do. And yes he is more than capable with the language.

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    3. David Says:

      Apparently a TV adaption of ‘Crimes Against My Brother’ is in the works, drawing on this novel and recurring characters from his other Miramichi books. Could be interesting…
      http://www.quillandquire.com/book-culture/2014/09/10/david-adams-richards-novel-to-be-adapted-for-television/

      Like

    4. Max Cairnduff Says:

      Not sure I’ll read the book, but it does sound like it would make for excellent tv. Think I’ll wait for that, not least as I find relentlessly bleak sometimes slightly wearying, and to be honest not wholly realistic given people even in the blackest of situations tend to find some humour and warmth to leaven their lot.

      The happenstance Carole mentions would hugely annoy me. I dislike that kind of contrivance unless it’s utterly and openly contrived.

      Like

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