The Innocents is set on Newfoundland’s harsh northern coastline, 100 or more years in the past. The Best family is struggling to establish a homestead in an isolated cove where father Sennet fishes and salts cod and mother Sarah maintains a vegetable patch, cooks and raises the children: Evered, Ada and baby Martha.
Then, in short order one winter, Martha, Sarah and Sennet are all dead from an illness. Evered and Ada, both very young, carry on living in the manner of their parents because they have no choice: it’s the only life they know. At the point of being orphaned, the two have had almost no contact with the outside world and, other than Mary Oram, the woman their father fetched from a village called Mockbeggar to deliver the baby, have had no dealings with humans apart from their immediate family. They have never been to school, they know nothing of the Bible or religion, are unable to read, and are ignorant of geography, history and science. They have no concept of money or debt. But they have absorbed some of their parents’ knowledge regarding the mechanisms of the world outside their door and as young as they are, recognize that they must perform the tasks that their parents performed, or else perish.
The genius of The Innocents is that, though it references a vividly rendered and tangibly authentic historical context, the atmosphere is post-apocalyptic (though the two books are vastly different, Crummey’s novel is loosely reminiscent of Into the Forest by Jean Hegland). For Ada and Evered, every new experience is terrifying and carries the threat of the unknown. But every new experience also teaches them something that will help them survive. As the seasons pass and the two enter their teens, their horizons expand and they become proficient in the art of taming and exploiting the unforgiving wilderness that sustains them but at any given moment could deal a lethal blow.
But further challenges await, the most momentous being their own maturing bodies. Absorbing and suspenseful, Michael Crummey’s novel chronicles the gradual awakening of Evered and Ada Best to the beauty and horror of the natural world, their growing awareness of the light and dark of their own human nature and the good and evil they carry within them.
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