Thursday, June 25, 2015

River Thieves, by Michael Crummey

River Thieves, by Michael Crummey
Review by Jem Poster, The Guardian
October 11, 2002

This is a novel with a vast epic sweep, a tale of racial conflict set against the harsh and beautiful backdrop of Newfoundland in the early 19th century. John Peyton and his ageing father set their traps and fishing lines in a country whose native inhabitants, the Beothuk, have been driven to the verge of extinction by the activities both of the European settlers and the neighbouring Mi'kmaq tribe. The narrative centres on one incident, the murder of two Beothuk men by a raiding party which includes the two Peytons.

It's an unsettling tale, not least because of its author's admirable refusal either to moralise or to simplify. There's a telling ambiguity in the very title: are the "river thieves" the raiding Beothuk - the embattled warriors who steal traps, destroy salmon nets and at one point plunder the Peytons' loaded boat - or the usurping settlers, pillaging native dwellings and burial sites as they move clumsily through a land they can never honestly call their own?

One of the settlers, Reilly, has in fact been transported to Newfoundland after a misspent early life as a river thief on the Thames, and it's through this shadowy but important figure that Crummey most fruitfully explores the complex patterns of possession and dispossession that run through the novel as a whole.

Doubly displaced as an Irish Londoner exiled from England, Reilly is in some respects the counterpart of the frightened and bewildered Beothuk girl whom Peyton remembers being exhibited on a tavern table during his own childhood in England. Yet at the same time he is, of all the settlers, the one most truly at home in the wilderness: married to a Mi'kmaq woman and on reasonable terms with his Beothuk neighbours, he seems to hint at the possibility of some more humane and accommodating existence. But then - and it's in such twists that the novel's unsentimental realism is most strikingly apparent - he is crucially, if not entirely culpably, implicated in the murder.

Woven in with this bleak account of displacement and genocide is another, more intimate story involving Cassie, initially taken on by the elder Peyton as his son's tutor and now housekeeper to the two men. Shy, inexperienced and hampered by the belief that Cassie may actually be his father's lover, Peyton struggles variously to suppress and to articulate his own slow-burning passion for her. But Cassie's reasons for staying in the house are darker and more complicated than he can possibly guess, and this strand of the narrative offers only the chilliest of resolutions.
"Tilt" -- primative shelter used by early trappers in Newfoundland
Crummey has a sharp eye for detail and an often breathtaking lucidity of expression, and much of the novel's power derives from his skilful delineation of his chosen territory. Snowflakes shining like flint-sparks as they drift through the firelight, the play of shadows on the wall of a makeshift tent, the pressure of icy water against a swan-skin cuff as Peyton works wildly to free a man dragged beneath broken ice - such details bring us sharply into contact with a land which the law-enforcer and map-maker Buchan disturbingly conceives of as "devoid of any suggestion of design."

Crummey's attention to detail isn't invariably rewarding: occasionally the narrative flow is clogged by inert catalogues and tediously precise statistics. But the overriding impression from this novel is of a remarkably gifted writer working with passion and imagination as he recreates the interplay of vanished human lives in a spectacularly inhuman environment.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Hami Gold Melon

I bought this melon at Fred Meyers last week and cut and diced it today, sampling it as I did. It was delicious; crispy flesh, refreshingly sweet, aromatic. I found a sprinkle of lime enhanced the flavor, but it wasn't really necessary. This is a great melon! It was labeled "Hami Gold." It originates in China, where it's called Hami-Gua.

The Hami-Gua melon was first cultivated in the Xinjiang region of northwest China. It is still primarily cultivated in China and several other Asian countries, though it can be found in limited markets in America in the Western states such as California and Oregon, and now, Washington.

In Xinjiang, China the Hami-Gua melon has long held a place of cultural significance. In ancient times the melons were sent from Hami to the Emperor and the imperial court as a tribute. The melon is celebrated in Xinjiang every summer at the annual Hami Melon Festival which features melon carving, painting, contests, folk art performances and tastings of over 100 different variates of Hami melon.
My first bite of this melon reminded me of a melon I had in Tehran, Iran, during an Air Force assignment there in 1978. It was probably the best tasting melon I'd ever eaten, and it almost cost my my life to get it. My team had been in Tehran about a week and three of us decided to look around on the first weekend. We came across a melon vendor on our walk and I decided to buy one. I'd learned a few words of Farsi, pointed a melon, and asked how much it was. The vendor, who'd been drinking tea with a couple of other guys, all dressed the same way in grayish, tattered galabeyas, told me ten Toman, but I didn't pick up on the Toman. I'd learned to count in Farsi, and I'd learned that the Iranian currency was denominated in Rials, and I handed the vendor ten Rials. What I didn't know was that Tomans had been the Persian currency, and many Iranians, especially the merchants still used the term Toman to mean ten Rials. So, when I handed the vendor ten Rials -- a tenth of what he'd asked -- he thought I was either trying to cheat him, or starting my bargaining so low that it was an insult. Whatever the case, he started hollering at me right off the bat. So I handed him another Rial. His hollering grew louder, and I noticed my two teammates sidling away down the sidewalk.

A crowd was forming at the melon booth as the vendor's shouting continued unabated by my putting another Rial on the melon stand, since the vendor was now refusing to take my proffered coin. Iranians were gathering around and I was looking for a way out. By now, I could care less about the damned melon, but the vendor kept pressing forward, now holding the melon in front of him as if it were his first born son -- a treasure I had demeaned by my paltry offer. Others joined in the verbal attack and although I couldn't understand a word of the vitriol being hurled at me, I knew I wasn't being feted as a valued American guest.

Eventually, an Iranian policeman appeared and giving me a sort of smirk, pulled a ten rail note from my hand, gave it to the vendor, who was by now shaking with anger, took the melon from the stand, put it in my arms, and ushered me away down the sidewalk.

As I said, the melon was delicious, but certainly not worth the near-death experience. I actually wanted to bring the seeds home, thinking I might grow the melons in my yard back in Ohio. I took the seeds up on the roof of the team house in Tehran and left them to dry in the sun. After work the next evening I went up to see if they were dry, and several crows flew off as I approached. They'd eaten all the seeds. Was I going to go back and buy another melon and harvest the seeds? Are you crazy!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Daesh Women's Book Club

Daesh Women's Book Club Reading from, "I'm Okay You're an Infidel"
In most Arabic nations the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is generally referred to as Daesh. Historian and blogger Pieter van Ostaeyen wrote this year that that word was a transliteration of an Arabic word (داعش), an acronym for al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham (which is itself a transliteration of the group's Arabic name: الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام). The word can be transliterated a variety of different ways: The Washington Post uses DAIISH, but DAASH, DAIISH and DAISH are also used.

Some non-Arab countries, including France, have begun using the name, too. "I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in September. "The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats.’ ”

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Willaim Ryan's Recurring Character, Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev

The Darkening Field (released January 3, 2012) is author William Ryan’s second book featuring MVD Detective Alexei Korolev, whom we first met in The Holy Thief.

Captain Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev as a complex character, who’s “suffered greatly during the First World War and the Civil War and has done his best to forget the traumatic experiences, although they keep bubbling to the surface – and in addition he finds his slightly naive hopes for the ultimate success of the revolution to be completely at odds with his personal belief in God.”

Ryan sees Korolev's religious belief as “a very instinctive one, the kind that comes from being brought up in pre-Revolutionary Russia when the Orthodox faith would have been something that permeated every aspect of life.” Although Ryan doesn’t necessarily see Korolev as very religious as such, his surviving the First World War and the Civil War “seem to have persuaded him that having God on your side in a tight spot is no bad thing.”

Ryan says that Korolev “knows the difference between right and wrong and believes that evil should be punished and that's probably what drives him as a detective. Of course, the dilemma for him is that being moral in 1930s Russia is not necessarily sensible for a man who values his safety and that of his friends and family, so he has to be pragmatic more often than he might like.”
Ryan feels that the interesting thing about Korolev is that, “he also believes, or wants to believe, in the ultimate aims of the Revolution.

Ryan says “It took a while to put [Korolev’s] character together but the more research I did into the period the more I wanted to try and show the psychological pressures and damage that the savage wars, famines and repression that had ravaged Russia in the years after 1914 inflicted on individual Russians and how they managed to cope. And the fact that Korolev has managed to retain his optimism and morality through all of this is what makes him, I hope, an attractive character.”

From Russian Life interview with William Ryan, January 10, 2012 (

Friday, June 5, 2015

Sweetland, by Michael Crummey

The steel mill was a city unto itself. Massive coke ovens, storage tanks and elevators, engine rooms, stock houses the size of city churches, miles of train tracks and gas lines and elevated piping that criss-crossed the blackened acres. Cooling stations, smoke and creosote and slag, the molten glow of the pour-offs at the open hearths like some evangelical's vision of hell. Everything was in motion, cranes and railcars, conveyor belts shifting ore pellets to the blast furnaces, coal cars shuttling from the battery to the ovens, sheets of heated strip steel rolling through rotating cylinders. All of it seemed to be moving at cross purposes and the unremitting noise of the place was a physical thing, hammering against them. The air heated and condensed, packed with dust and steam and a nauseating chemical sweat. Men darting among the machinery like rats, their faces grimed with soot.

This is Michael Crummey's vivid description of the mill that his protagonist, Moses Sweetland, works in with his friend, Duke Fewer, when the two young men go to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, to find work. In Crummey's novel, 'Sweetland,' Moses and his friend can barely eke out a subsistence existence where they live on the island by the same name, Sweetland, in Newfoundland. Every other inhabitant (90 in all) of the small town is in the same boat (no pun intended), as a result of the moratorium on cod fishing imposed by the Canadian government in 1992. The moratorium was forced by over fishing and the resulting collapse of the once-plentiful fish stock.
Crummey's writing has been described in glowing terms, but as "spare lyricism" (the St John's Telegram). I guess I don't know what spare means in this sense. I see his descriptions of place, as in the steel mill above, as rich, fulsome (in the best sense), and evocative. Crummey is an award-winning poet, and his prose employs a variety of poetic devices, such as the parataxis demonstrated in the steel mill paragraph. He's able to do this without getting caught at it. One simply stops reading and exclaims, 'What a wonderful description,' or 'How well put,' or just says nothing and simply sits back and imagines being there, under a threatening sky, "a scudding wind kicking a lop on the water high enough to spit over the gunwale...soaked with ocean spray...face rimed with salt."
Crummey's story is about the disappearance of a way of life and it reflects, as any good story does, reality for Newfoundland's tiny coastal communities of fishermen and their kin. It revolves around the resettlement program implemented by the government of Canada. Families were offered a considerable amount of money to resettle to designated "growth areas." The sticking point in Crummey's novel was that all families had to agree (in actuality, the stipulation was that 80 to 90 percent of families had to agree). The government made it clear that once resettlement was completed, services would be cut off. In 'Sweetland,' we find the one hold out, Moses Sweetland, stranded in Chance Cove after he agrees to leave, then disappears as the government ferry is loaded.
Why does Moses Sweetland stubbornly refuse to leave the hardscrabble existence that he and others in the community endure? Perhaps it's because of the experience he had working in the steel mill, an experience that scarred him for life, physically and emotionally. Perhaps it's because who is, who he sees himself as being, is so tightly wound up with the concept of place that leaving is simply inconceivable. He is as much rooted to the land as the gnarled and tangled stands of stunted spruce and balsam fir -- the tuckamore -- anchored to the rock, weathered into swept-back, sculptural shapes by harsh coastal growing conditions.

Sweetland will not leave the island, but the island will leave him. Crummey doesn't lecture about climate change. He simply tells his story, and in his story, dead, emaciated birds wash up on shore. "Dozens of bullbirds dead in the water, the corpses like tiny bouys off their moorings and drifting past the breakwater...hundreds more of them on the surface beyond the breakwater, floating dead. The birds so delicately calibrated they'd starved within hours of each other, the organs shutting down one at a time." Sweetland realizes that these birds, these fish, these places are, "relics of another time and on their way out."

At some primal level, Sweetland understands that he too, is a relic. That, "There was a new world being built around him." Listening to the Fisheries Broadcast, he heard about, "apocalyptic weather, rising sea levels, alterations in the seasons, in ocean temperatures. Fish migrating north in search of colder water and the dovekies lost in the landscape they were made for. The generations of instinct they'd relied on to survive here suddenly useless."

In the end, I was left sad by the story. Sad for the plight of the people. Sad for the suffering. Their diminishment. Sad to realize that for many, perhaps most, their resettlement will not bring happiness, but simply another sort of suffering by virtue of an alienation that an indoor toilet can't assuage. Sad for the loss of a way of life. But I realize, as well, that I feel as if I've come to know these people, and I will miss them.

The Burning of the Horse Heaven Hills, July 1993

The Horse Heaven Hills burned last Sunday
Exhaust from a wheat truck started the fire
It spread from a small draw to the east
across the south slope of the hills moving west

A strong wind fanned the flames and the fire
inhaling the golden prairie grass
exploding the dry sage
raced across the hills faster than a man could run

The wind shifted and the flames turned and moved north
towards the homes skirting the golf course

Huge, black clouds of smoke
billowed in front of the fire and obscured the flames
Behind the smoke, the sound of the fire was a roar
punctuated by the cannon-shots of exploding sagebrush

The wind turned the fire again and it raced along the crest of the hills
then disappeared down the south slope
Another shift brought the fire back
Fifteen-foot flames shot up across the top of the hill
then spread down the slope to the west

By now, three fire departments from surrounding towns
were fighting the blaze and keeping it from devouring hillside homes
Giant tank trucks lumbered across the hills like prehistoric animals
Fire fighters struggled with hoses ejaculating water
and drowned the flames in one, dramatic explosion of spray

The trucks moved to meet the fire at another home
while volunteers shoveled dirt on the smoldering sage and prairie grass
and dug and turned under still-burning branches

When it was finally over, some 1000 acres had burned
leaving the hills an ugly, black scruff

The lupine, and daisies, the wild phlox, and desert marigolds
burrowing owls, quail, thrush, ground squirrels

A vast hoard of grasshoppers driven from the hills
descended on the lawns and yards of the homes
swarmed over flowers, tress, and hedges
and climbed doors, and clung to windows
staring with their alien, accusing eyes

The acrid smell of smoke hung in the air
and the sunset was blood red

I walked in the hills Monday
stepping through the ashes

There is nothing left
but the cracked earth
the black rock
the smell of devastation

There is no heaven here

"Lo!  the fell monster with the deadly sting,
Who passes mountains, breaks through fenced walls
And firm embattled spears, and with his filth
Taints all the world."

(Dante Alighieri, The Devine Comedy,Canto XVII, Hell)