Michael Crummy’s Galore- a lecture

Michael Crummy’s Galore



River Thieves




Father Phelan


Michael Crummy’s Biography:

  • Crummy was born in a small mining town in the interior of Newfoundland 
  • Grew up both there and in Labrador, on the far northern coast
  • He then went to Kingston, Ontario, where he did graduate work at Queen’s University, before dropping out of the PhD. program
  • The same institution at which I did my undergraduate degree
  • He then moved back to Newfoundland
  • He first began to write as a poet, which shows in his careful use of language in all of his works
  • He won a national award for his poetry in 1994
  • Then turned to novels, all of which are works of historical fiction
  • He has also said that his novels draw heavily on stories that he has heard from his father and other relatives
  • His first was River Thieves, which was published in 2001
  • The book was set in Newfoundland, and dealt with the encounter between the settlers and the indigenous peoples
  • In particular, it focuses on how the settlers captured the last of the indigenous Beothuk peoples
  • It won a series of awards, and was nominated for the prestigious Giller Prize
  • His second book, the Wreckage, came out in 2005, and was not as successful
  • The story focused on the experience of a Newfoundland soldier during and after World War Two
  • His third book was Galore, which was published in 2009 and won a Commonwealth prize.

Setting of Galore:

  • the story is set in Paradise Deep, a remote coastal community in 19th century Newfoundland on the northern coast, the most isolated part of the entire island
  • Newfoundland is a huge island, and did not join Canada until 1949
  • Until then it was run as a separate colony by the British
  • Paradise Deep is a fishing community, and desperately poor
  • People who live there are desperate to make a living
  • The men often have to sail north to Labrador to fish there, because some years the fishing is too poor in their community to survive
  • In those years, the wandering priest would travel to check on remote households, where in some years the entire family would have died from starvation
  • it is a world shaped by tragedy
  • when one doctor arrives he is consumed pulling the teeth, and other health ills
  • he becomes so overwhelmed that he takes to drinking
  • it is also defined by the extreme religious divisions between the Catholics and Protestants, which would separate small communities into two blocs
  • Newfoundland seems to be an attractive setting for novelists
  • The very successful Annie Proulx’s “Shipping News” was set there, as was Howard Norman’s The Museum Guard
  • I think that part of the reason that people are fascinated with Newfoundland is because of the presence of the sea
  • This is also what seems to draw folklore into the story from the very beginning


  • The novel begins when a whale beaches itself on the shore
  • The entire community turns out to take advantage of this opportunity
  • Begin to butcher the whale, when they find a man inside
  • He smells terrible, and is as white as the snow, but is very much alive
  • A biblical element to the story 
  • So begins this remarkable story, which combines aspects of careful historical research with the fantastic
  • The core of the novel is the story of two families, the Sellers and Devines, over several generations
  • The entire story is haunted by another world, and there are frequent touches of the supernatural
  • Although Atlantic Canada is rich in folklore, I think that you have to look at a broader setting to understand the story.
  • The strange thing is that this novel is set in remote Atlantic Canada, but clearly influenced by the tradition of magical realism from Latin America
  • I need to start by saying a few words about this tradition.

Magical Realism

⮚ magical realism: a genre unique to Latin American writing

⮚ the style is marked by episodes of the fantastic woven into the text in a natural unsurprised manner

⮚ it is not fantasy or science fiction, although critics sometimes lump the genres together

  • this ties into the second facet

⮚ in Latin American novels, there is often a circular conception of time

⮚ many magical realist novels are circular in structure

⮚ they never begin at the beginning and end by consuming themselves

⮚ for example, One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, begins with a character’s memory of a beginning

⮚ at the end, a character of the same name reads a manuscript

⮚ he then realizes that he and the entire story were created by these pages written by a gypsy

⮚ and that when he finishes reading them he will cease to exist

⮚ this cyclical conception of time was inspired by the Mayan and Aztec conception of time, which was in itself cyclical

⮚ for this reason, many events in these novels seem to take place at the same time

⮚ the chain of cause and event is blurred

⮚ finally, with regard to self-consciousness about the writing process

⮚ this too was inspired by indigenous traditions

⮚ some native peoples believed that the story was as concrete as a physical object

⮚ by creating a story, you were creating something tangible, real

⮚ the author tends to be near the surface in these novels

⮚ there is a sense of creation implicit in the writing

⮚ all the writers were striving to create something unique to Latin America, a particular identity

⮚ it is ironic: Latin America was for so long a cultural backwater

⮚ now its authors have repeatedly won the Nobel Prize for literature

⮚ many of the worlds greatest writers, Umberto Eco, Salmon Rushdie, and Peter Carey, look to Latin America for inspiration

  • magical realism has entered into global literature
  • a clear influence upon Michael Crummy, who has said that his inspiration was Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • from Marquez, you have the elements of the fantastic, and the emphasis on families across the generations
  • at times the novel feels like a study in geneology
  • people are described in relationship to their families
  • this is a story of family sagas, in which people are shaped by events three generations before
  • some critics did not like this aspect of the work, because at times it was difficult to keep the family trees straight

Circular Conception of Time

  • this novel also has a circular conception of time
  • there is no clear change in peoples’ circumstance
  • no clear trend of progress through time
  • poverty always defined peoples’ lives in the community
  • the passage of time had little impact on peoples’ lives
  • there was cold, hunger, fishing and interpersonal relationships
  • families mattered more than individuals in this story
  • there was no one main character
  • in some ways, this was a very pragmatic world
  • but in this world, folklore was key
  • some people have commented that the book has a fairy tale quality
  • but I think that it is more than that

The Role of Folklore in the Novel

  • the entire novel is based upon folklore: you have Judah, who was rescued from the belly of a whale
  • but you also have a woman called “Devine’s Widow,” whom people perceive as a witch
  • in reality, Crummy seems to suggest that she is nothing of the sort
  • but she takes advantage of the townspeoples’ beliefs to obtain what she needs
  • she is a socially marginalized person
  • the peoples’ belief that she is a witch helps her to survive
  • but if their cows failed to give milk they also might suspect that she was the cause
  • or when there was an outbreak of illness they might suspect it was her
  • at one point characters carry out a spell to free themselves of the influence of a witch
  • there are a whole series of fantastic incidents
  • one many claimed to have seen a mermaid in the harbor
  • even newcomers to the community within the novel talk about the fantastic as an elements of peoples’ lives in Paradise Drift
  • Dr. Newman, an American who comes to Paradise Deep “felt at times he’d been transported to a medieval world that was still half fairy tale.”
  • these elements help to bond people together and give meaning to their lives in a bleak environment
  • the rituals defined by folklore shape their society in a deep way
  • one can see that with Carnival
  • I want to say a few words about Carnival in a broader context before I discuss the role it plays in the novel


  • Carnival: originally a pagan festival
  • incorporated into Catholic calendar
  • celebration before Lent: begins the Friday before Ash Wednesday

five days of total abandon

in the U.S: Mardi-Gras

similar idea in Brazil

heart of this celebration in Brazil: parades by samba schools

major events: tens of thousands of people parade

floats fantastical/people dance samba non-stop/huge drum bands accompany the affair

people save all year to buy their costumes

practice long hours for the parade

whole event is over in hours

people want to pack as much fun into that time as they can

government tried to repress Carnival around the turn of the century

costumes brief: men and women both wear the flimsiest of clothing

people are expected to shed all inhibitions

government failed: tradition continued

Carnival is still supposed to be a time dedicated to total freedom and pleasure

people justify any madness by saying: “It was Carnival.”

this is true in all kinds of different forums

madness does not end with the parade

elite society puts on gala balls

beautiful people/celebrities mix/go to every excess

difficult to describe/many authors have tried

more luck capturing this atmosphere with the camara

the film Black Orpheus, in particular, showed Carnival to the world

the James Bond film, Moonraker

Carnival has become intimately linked with Brazil in American and European popular culture

huge tourist draw

streets: filled with Germans and Italians, Australians and Americans

has brought mystique to a particular city, Rio de Janeiro

people come looking for fun, sex, and the forbidden


  • One classic aspect of Carnival is mumming, in which people dress up I disguises and go from door to door
  • In Brazil, it was traditional for one of the characters to say to someone “Do you recognize me?”
  • If there person said no, then the would begin to reveal the persons secrets and weaknesses
  • There is a similar tradition in Newfoundland
  • People go from door to door, in disguise
  • They play music when they are invited in
  • Expect food and drink in return
  • In the novel, the mummers play a key role
  • People ask them questions, and they make predictions about the future
  • More importantly, they reveal the true relationships between people, and peoples’ sins
  • Especially peoples sins
  • People never seem to fall in love in an ordinary way in this novel
  • The mummers remind me of a Greek chorus
  • The most important of the mummers is a character known as Horse Chops
  • He had the ability to answer any question put to him
  • People would ask him the most embarrassing questions that they could imagine
  • Here I am going to quote from the book: “No subject was too lewd, no question was taboo. Secret loves and affairs, unpaid debts, illegitimate children, ongoing family arguments, sins buried and unconfessed, were all fair game.”

Night Hag

  • one of the weaknesses of the story is that it does seem that Crummy has worked hard to incorporate every possible example of folklore into the story
  • For example, he talks about the night hag
  • Night hag: real phenomenon
  • People awake in the night
  • They are conscious, but still in a state of paralysis
  • Unable to move
  • Still in a quasi-dream state
  • In this state they may see someone, but feel incapable of moving
  • Terrifying experience
  • May lay behind many reports of peoples’ strange experience
  • In Newfoundland this phenomenon is called the night hag
  • A young teenager was believed to be troubled by the phenomenon, which they believed was sent by a witch
  • She had to sleep for a week with a board on her chest
  • The idea was that when the night hag came to sit on top of her in the night, she would sit down on the nails and hurt herself
  • In the end, the young woman grew tired of the procedure and simply threw the board away

The Missing Sea

  • what is strange with the folklore in the book is that more of it does not take place on the ocean
  • there is little description of characters’ experiences out on the waters.
  • Shipwrecks and disasters happen, but off-stage so that the reader learns of events later, rather than views them first hand
  • Newfoundland is filled with maritime folklore: giant squids, ghost ships, sea monsters, forerunners warning of disaster
  • This folklore is not in the foreground of this novel
  • Rather, the story focuses on relationships on land, and in particular romantic relations
  • Although using romance as a term to describe these relationships is perhaps misleading in this dark novel

Father Phelan and the Ghost

  • The theme of tragedy is very powerful in the novel, as is punishment
  • Sex is also a constant throughout the story
  • No character is more bawdy and sexual than Father Phalan, a renegade priest, always in trouble with the Catholic Church
  • The Father has a very high tolerance for sin, both in others and himself
  • He finds himself attracted to a widow named Virtue
  • Doubtless the choice of this woman’s name was not a coincidence
  • Seems to contrast her with the bawdy priest even more
  • This woman had been widowed after her husband tried to kill her
  • He failed, then fled the community and committed suicide
  • His ghost then returned, and was seen in broad daylight walking through the community
  • People were terrified
  • It soon began to haunt his wife
  • Announced its presence in a most dramatic way, crashing feet-first through the ceiling
  • But after this terrifying entrance, the ghost did very little
  • A constant presence
  • Nobody knew what it wanted
  • Virtue asked her dead husband constantly, but he did not answer her
  • Father Phelan was called to ask it what it needed
  • This seemed in keeping with the priest’s character: “The priest had a weakness for stories of hauntings and unclean spirits and ritual exorcisms, recounting them in all their arcane and nauseating detail. He was full of questions for Jabez, wanting to know what Mr. Gallery was wearing when he saw him and if his features appeared changed and what language he spoke.”
  • He decided that it had come to be punished
  • So he began to make love to the widow in front of her husbands’ ghost
  • The two of them began a relationship, when they agreed that the man needed a long punishment
  • In the end, the relationship between the priest and the widow ends when she has him send her husband away, by hearing his confession
  • At times the novel is bleak, and some people have commented that the story seemed joyless
  • At the same time, there were moments of outrageous humor like this
  • In line with his depiction of most characters, which is bleak
  • People commit adultery, lie, 
  • But this example was more important than just a bawdy story
  • In many respects the entire novel is a ghost story in that it is haunted by the past
  • Time is circular
  • The past breaks into the present

The Ending

  • One can see this circularity in the conclusion of the book
  • I won’t give away the ending, except that it returns the story to Judah, and his experience with the whale
  • It also ends in the period after World War One, with a soldier returning home to Newfoundland
  • By this point, the ghosts and otherworldly inhabitants of Paradise Deep have faded from view
  • But folklore is the one constant, and the voices of the mummer’s, with their predictions, gossip, and unveiling.


  • Atlantic Canada is a region famous for its oral culture and its rich folklore
  • Nowhere is this true more than in Newfoundland
  • Newfoundland was isolated for so long that many folk traditions that died in Europe survived 
  • But the folklore was not only adopted to prove authenticity
  • Rather, it was melded with magical realism
  • The result is a strange hybrid, as though Gabriel Garcia Marquez was writing in remote outport communities in Newfoundland
  • At times, there are weaknesses to the novels
  • The lack of the main character and multiple generations makes it hard to trace characters
  • Crummy’s novels in a sense are defined by atmosphere, that mood is more important than plot
  • In this context, folklore creates a mood of melancholy and tragedy, in which all life is shaped by the difficulty of living with the sea.


Why do locations by the sea seem to encourage folklore?

Are there any characters or traditions like mumming in Germany (or wherever you are)?

Do you think that Crummy’s work is less authentic because it uses magical realism, a tradition from Latin America?

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