Giller Shortlist: The Innocents by Michael Crummey

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Last week, I had the pleasure of attending an author reading with Michael Crummey at the Halifax Library. It was my first time hearing him speak in person, and I was surprised by how relaxed he seemed and how funny he was. (Not as surprised by how personable and articulate.)

Crummey spoke about how The Innocents came to be. Years ago, in the St. John’s archives, he came across a “reference to an 18th century clergyman who discovered two young siblings living on their own in an isolated cove. When the clergyman approached them to ask how they came to be there on their own, the boy chased him off at gunpoint.” (CBC) Crummey couldn’t get those youngsters out of his head. “… to be orphaned in a place without any outside influences at all, and then having to try and discover who they were and how the world worked.

Crummey also spoke of his use of a book called Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (Francis Grose, 1785), where he found some whopping insults that fit nicely into his book. The excerpt he read that night is a good example of some of the colourful language he uses in his book.

In this excerpt, Sarah Best is making jam and her husband Sennet is trying to swipe some of it before it’s done.

Their father stole the spoon away and their mother smacked him across the ear with the flat of her hand.

“You lousy hedge whore,” he shouted, grabbing at her shoulders.

“Muck-spout,” she said through her teeth. “Filthy beard splitter.”

They wrestled nearly to exhaustion before he managed to corral her arms, cuffing her wrists together in one hand to give himself unfettered access to the cooling jam. He scooped a ladleful in his bare fingers and held their mother still a long moment then, trying to catch his breath, watching her as the thickened juice dripped from his hand.

“Don’t you,” Sarah Best said, weak with laughter, almost too winded to speak.

“You dirty shag-bag,” she said, yanking with both arms, using the last of her strength to try to pull clear.

“My bob tail,” their father said, reefing her closer.

“Sennet Best,” she said, “you buck fitch.”

And he brought the dripping hand to her face then, smearing the jam across her cheeks and her mouth and her squinted eyes as she squirmed in his grip and laughed and cursed him all she was worth.

What is a muck-spout, anyway? According to Mental Floss, it’s “a dialect word for someone who not only talks a lot, but who seems to constantly swear.” And a beard splitter?… “a British slang used for ‘ a man much given to wenching.’’ (The Vintage News)

 

Marcie (Buried in Print) also notes the language Crummey uses in The Innocents; the way in which it can make us feel close or at a distance.

The language makes it seem farther away, like another nation. Take, for instance, a passage like this, sprinkled with dialect which reminds readers of the Irish/Scottish/English settlements which took root. “In August Ada swept the beach clean, scraping mollyfodge from the rocks on the bawn to make an untainted platform for laying out the cod that had been sitting weeks in salt bulk.”

But the story, in particular the relationship between Ada and her brother, Evered, the universal struggles they face (survival – how much more basic does it get – and a desire to connect), makes it seem closer. As does the occasional glimpse of humour in what is a chronicle of an often-difficult and occasionally tragic life.

“You was lost in the dawnies again,” she said. “What was it you was dreaming about?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Some old foolishness.”

“You’re an awful liar, Brother.”

He shrugged. “It idn’t for lack of practice,” he said.

‘Mollyfodge’, ‘bawn’, and ‘dawnies’: that might put you back on your heels. But Evered’s quiet joke, and the talk of dreams, the everyday work (be it sweeping or fishing): in essence, it’s everyday life.

And the way in which it reminds us of poetry.

The language is beautiful. One also cannot forget that Crummey is a poet, so we have snippets like this to enjoy: a man who reads “periodically from the black book in his hands, his voice like a spadeful of gravel against wood”.

Marcie calls his writing “accomplished and resonant”, but notes that he especially wins her “reader’s heart” when he talks about storytelling.

To find out which of Crummey’s books is Marcie’s favourite, and to read her full review of The Innocents, pop over to Buried in Print.

 

We would love to hear your thoughts on The Innocents, Michael Crummey, the Giller, or any other bookish thing you would like to say! 

You can find the reading schedule for the shortlist here.

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4 Responses to “Giller Shortlist: The Innocents by Michael Crummey”

  1. Cathy746books Says:

    Muck-spout is a brilliant descriptive term! This sounds fabulous.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. buriedinprint Says:

    I love it when authors talk about how a particular fragment of history inspires them to create a fiction. I can see where this snippet would have nagged at him.

    That reference book makes me think of Amitav Ghosh’s work with linguistics (a similar source is cited in the first of his Ibis books, I believe) and how much it added to those stories. Different languages, of course, but perhaps a similar passion?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Naomi Says:

      How I would love to have a look through that Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue! (As well as the Dictionary of Newfoundland English which he said he uses all the time.)

      Like

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