On the surface, The Innocents is a novel about a brother and sister trying to live off the vast emptiness of Newfoundland coast after their parents and infant sister perish from an illness. They have one boat to catch fish, one garden to grow vegetables, one set of clothes for all the seasons, and only each other’s company. The stakes are high: survival, year after year.
But at its core, The Innocents is a deeply emotional and moving portrait of human desires, temperaments, and existence in the face of both mundane and extreme situations. Michael Crummey has fashioned a survival tale out of introspective musings and spellbinding settings, meshing both brother’s and sister’s interiority with the wildness and unpredictability of the landscape around them.
Ada and Evered Best are nine and eleven when they’re orphaned and left to fend for themselves in 19th-century Newfoundland. In the beginning of the novel, childhood is taken from them quite literally, as Evered’s hair turns shock white after the trauma of having to bury his father out at sea on his own. The siblings have no time to mourn – they must prepare for the oncoming winter, and the life of solitude ahead of them. With only the handful of lessons and memories from their parents as guides, they just manage to survive to the first spring.
Much of the first half of the book is taken up with this first year or two, tracking the intricate and intimate actions of Evered and Ada as they each do their own share of work to keep themselves afloat. The beautiful language is what keeps the reader moving forward, since the daily tasks often repeat themselves and the danger of starvation loses its luster after too long as a threat.
A welcome change of pace comes when new characters are introduced: a crew of men aboard a ship aptly named The Hope, bearing supplies Evered trades for that should last him and Ada until the next year. It also marks – both for the reader and in the plot – a distant point to look forward to. The Hope’s arrival signals another cycle completed. Another year survived.
To care about the plot – and whether or not Evered and Ada survive – the reader has to care about the characters themselves. And Crummey shines brightest here. Ada, the younger sister, is strong-willed and insightful, and jumps at opportunities to join her brother in their tasks, big or small. Evered is tender and spiteful in equal measure, but fiercely loyal and diligent. As the two grow, they learn from the world around them as much as from themselves. Through their solitary interactions, they come to know jealousy, embarrassment, frustration, and terrifyingly binding love.
It’s an interesting thought experiment, thinking how you might come to know and understand the world with only one other to experience it with and through. Evered and Ada don’t know how to read, don’t know how it was their mother became pregnant before she passed, don’t know about alcohol, or falling in love, or war.
Eventually, a few other characters come in and out of their little cove to bring new stories and lessons, big and small. John Warren, for example, comes ashore looking for trees large enough to build a ship mast. With him he brings tales of a far-off battles, bustling cities, lost loves, and a rowdy but good-hearted group of men who give Evered his first hangover and introduce him to lewd and insinuating jokes and songs.
This visit lasts a while, and it is a drastic change in Evered and Ada’s lives: “They were heartbroken to see their visitors leave, as they expected. The heartbreak was an old familiar they’d long since learned to accommodate … but there was another blade at work that had never before touched them. They had all their lives been the one thing the other looked to first and last, the one article needed to feel complete whatever else was taken from them or mislaid in the dark. But each in their own way was beginning to doubt their pairing was requisite to what they might want from life.”
And through these changes and insights, a little of life’s shine begins to dull. Ada’s collection of rocks, washed-up trinkets, and small bones were once a wonder and treasure to her. But as she experiences more of the heartbreaks that the world can offer, she begins to see them in a new light: “It was confounding to see magic and beauty and mystery leach out of a thing, to think it could be used up like a store of winter supplies.” Such small admissions from little Ada are powerful enough to make an average reader blink in surprise – at the simplistic truth of it all. And though it is not directly stated, it’s clear how Ada sees her brother’s magic and beauty leaching away, as well.
Most natural of the entire novel is the inevitable but perfectly paced erosion of innocence. Mirroring Adam and Eve at times – two innocent souls in their own personal Eden, a garden that slowly crumbles around them but feels impossible to leave – Evered and Ada find themselves investigating timeless human traits: they develop sexual desires of which they are at first confused and then consumed by; they begin to lie to each other out of instinct; they even discover bickering siblinghood: “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.” Regardless of their seclusion, their bonds build and break just the same as any others, and they must negotiate the new connection between one another without any guidance.
Crummey’s prose is compelling enough to pair with the languorous nature of the plot, and even though Evered and Ada’s fate becomes steadily more secure as they gain skill and knowledge of survival, there is an urgency to each page, each probe into the other’s psyche. Spending years with two characters with nothing but their daily tasks and the other’s company would falter in any other author’s hands, but Crummey explores much larger themes through these two youngsters’ experiences and development, ensuring The Innocents’ place as an unexpected period novel about survival and family.
By Michael Crummey
Published November 12, 2019