Orphaned children survive the wild in Michael Crummey’s gripping ‘The Innocents’

"The Innocents," by Michael Crummey.

Two children, orphaned at a young age, alone on a barren cove of the Newfoundland coast. Michael Crummey’s harshly beautiful new novel “The Innocents” (Doubleday, 304 pp., ★★★½ out of four stars) takes this brutal scenario – based on a true story – as a starting point, but what begins as a gripping survival tale deepens into a psychological inquiry into intimacy, conflict and what it means to be alone together in the world. 

It’s the 19th century, and Evered and Ada have never left the corner of rocky shore where they were born. They’ve only met one other person besides their parents, and cannot read or write: “The cove was the heart and sum of all creation in their eyes and they were alone there with the little knowledge of the world passed on haphazard and gleaned by chance.” 

As the novel opens they struggle to bury their father, who died of the same illness as their mother. Copying what he witnessed only a few weeks before, Evered, 11, barely manages to row his parent’s body far enough off shore to send it under the icy waves.  For several weeks he and Ada, who is younger, cling to tenuous existence with a few bites of hardtack and long hours of sleep huddled in the same bed. 

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As spring comes and pack ice floats to their shore, the two children hunt seals for food. Their astonishing resilience, and partnership, leads to more successes, and they begin to forge a life at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean: trapping and drying fish, collecting driftwood to burn, setting aside stores for the colder season. Soon they must face the terrifying prospect of interacting with other people, via the single schooner that comes twice a year to drop supplies and take their fish. In this way, the two “innocents” slowly accrue knowledge of the world.

Utterly dependent on climate and the cove for food and shelter, Evered and Ava must align all their actions with the tumultuous ocean. Crummey’s vivid depictions of nature are attuned to the rhythms of seasonal harvest and evoke the characters’ profound isolation in remote Newfoundland.

Author Michael Crummey.

As the siblings grow in body and mind, their relationship changes. As the title of the novel suggests, Ada and Evered come to understand – apart from culture – all the primal drives of human experience.   Evered, now adolescent, while trapping: “It was a torment and a respite to be away from his sister, to escape the confines of time spent with someone he would have died for and could hardly manage to speak to anymore.  All the days of his life had been inclined to her orbit and he canted toward her still though she seemed as distant as the moon.” 

The last scenes of “The Innocents” manage to both shock and satisfy, and will leave readers thinking about the story of Evered and Ava for a long time.

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