Who Told Thee That Thou Wast Naked? - Michael Crummey's The Innocents
I have absolutely no idea how I came across Michael Crummey’s “The Innocents,” but I am glad it appeared to me through the void, on my kindle, ready to read.
What I do know is that it has been shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize—an award that comes with a small monetary gift of $100,000.
It’s possible that this is the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon happening in real time, in that I have been thinking about characterization for the last month, but this is a novel built entirely on the power of two characters.
The Innocents tells the story of Ada and Evered, two young children orphaned when they were nine and eleven respectively. Their parents and little sister dying in short order, during a harsh winter, to some unnamed illness. They are left to fend for themselves on a coastal plot of land called “Orphan’s Cove” near Newfoundland. By some miracle, they survive the rest of the Winter until THE HOPE, the supply vessel that stocked the family every spring and fall, arrives. Having learned some small sense of fishery from his Father, Evered convinces The Beadle to sell (Read: indenture) him equipment to get through the season, and he’ll pay the man back with the fish he catches during the summer.
For the most part, this is the bulk of the outside contact that Evered and Ada have with what we would call the outside world. To the two land-locked orphans, however, this outside world is a philosophical conundrum, a figment that only they can imagine—like Tolkein’s Undying Lands. It exists, but they know not to what extent or what the world truly is. Specifically, they know of only one other city, across the water, called Mockbeggar. The world at large is literally and figuratively beyond them.
Their lack of knowledge beyond the cove is so total that one character asks Evered, “Who told thee thou wast naked?” (Genesis 3:11).
Which should tell you by now what kind of story we’re reading: Ada(m) and Eve(red)—and I must admit, it took me just over half of the book to make this connection.
The characters are starting from something of a tabula rasa, not knowing what’s wrong or right in their lives. They have sexual impulses towards one another that also coincidence with inherent shame and disgust, they know nothing of the outside world, and they can’t even deduce how a woman comes to have a child. Ada remembers the biblical story about the Virgin Mary getting her feet wet while picking berries and believes in the possibility of the story.
On the flip side, Evered can’t quite figure out what the Father has to do with a child. He wonders how the mother goes about picking the father of a child, since they don’t take part in the birth (or, to his measure, the conception).
There’s a point in the story where another character who finds his way to the island shows Evered the power of guns, and this discovery of technology, or forbidden knowledge, was what made me make the connection of this being something (I say something because I don’t think this is only that) of a genesis story.
Because I think this is a close character study of two budding adolescents, more than it is a story of genesis, but told through the lens of two characters who are more or less blank slates.
The character of Evered is the perfect cross between a blue collar working man and an innocent boy exploring the strange land of his own puberty. He is stoic, hard working and battling a multitude of confusing sexual desires. The reader also gets the sense that the boy is not quite as quick as his sister, Ada.
Ada is the more clever of the two, as evidenced by her simple suggestion to use molasses as a bait in Evered’s traps. She’s also the more one, keeping shells, bones, and other artifacts safely stowed away. She talks openly to her dead sister Martha, as if she were in the same room.
Both spend time on their own, with Evered going off to hunt or fish and Ada staying home to talk to her deceased sister Martha, pick berries, tend to the garden or keep the fire stoked. The main tension between the two of them seems sexual in nature, in a ‘will they / won’t they’ nature.
Crummey did a great job bringing these two innocent children—and the world they live in—to life while still giving them enough adulthood to not make their budding sexual relationship not altogether creepy.
In some ways, it almost felt like a challenge: could he make a story that relied heavily on an incestual relationship while still maintaining something of a pure love between the two of them.
It also reminds me of another writing exercise that I think he navigates with ease. Can you make two characters who do love each other fight while still letting the audience know that they do love each other?
Michael Crummey’s The Innocents is masterful exploration of just that.
But beyond just the characterization of the two characters, I thought there was a third character present throughout the novel and that was the weather. The billowing ice fields, the lakes beyond their cove, the never-ending beaches, torrential downpour, and the hurricane level winds. They battle through each one of them together.
That is the true enemy of the novel. We get a variety of visitors to the island, but not a single one seems to have a threatening bone in his body, despite this reader’s own expectation every time a visitor showed up. The closest thing to animosity that comes up is a chaste and insulting word from a sailor aimed towards Ada, which ends in a fist fight between the man and Evered.
A shining star of the novel is the vocabulary used throughout, which was exceptionally unique and as I understand it, true to the period, using Francis Grose’s 1785 Dictionary of the Vulgar and The Dictionary Of Newfoundland.
All in all, this is definitely a story I would recommend.
And as a side note, I was thinking about the difference between a short story and a novel, somewhat spurred on by this novel.
A short story is built upon the strength of an idea and a novel is built upon the strength of character.
You can watch an uninteresting character go through an interesting idea for a short amount of time, but you generally don’t want to watch a thin and boring characters for any extended length of time.