Prior to The Last Beothuk (2017, Flanker Press), Mr Collins’ last book was Desperation: The Queen of Swansea (2016, Flanker Press), which won a “The Very Best!” Book Award in the Historical Fiction category for that year. At the time, I posited that Mr Collins was at the top of his storytelling game. One could only guess what his next subject might be! Well, we didn’t have to wait long, for we have the finished product from Flanker Press on the shelves now.
Inspired by true events, The Last Beothuk is the fictionalized story of Kopituk (or Kop) an actual Beothuk hunter who appears to have outlived Shanawdithit, who is generally believed to be the last Beothuk and died in St. John’s in 1829. The Beothuk are the aboriginal people of the island of Newfoundland. They were hunter-gatherers who probably numbered less than a thousand people at the time of European contact, which is when The Last Beothuk begins.
Without giving away too much of the plot, The Last Beothuk follows the life and journeys of Kop, his young wife Tehonee and their small daughter Kuise. They are in search of their people, and all they can find are their abandoned dwellings and evidence of the “Unwanted Ones”, Europeans who fear the Beothuk (they call them red devils, since the Beothuk stained their skin with red ochre) and shoot them with their “fire sticks” on sight, or carry them off as captives. The Beothuk despise these ones for they arrive uninvited, exploit the natural resources, and drive them away from the coast and into the forests where the Unwanted Ones fear to go. Kop visits all the traditional gathering places, but not a living soul can be found.
Kop saw the signs of his people on the point of every wooded bend and in the bottom of every cove on the riverbanks. But it was a dead spoor, bereft of all life, as cold as the ring of ash from once-welcome campfires he found beneath the burnt-out frames of mamateeks [birch-bark shelters]. It was as if his people had vanished forever from this valley.
The overarching impact of The Last Beothuk is a combination of two things. First, the intense sense of loneliness felt by Kop as he searches fruitlessly for his people:
He [Kop] rose to his feet and motioned with his hand for her to rise also when the cries began on the pond. Both father and daughter turned toward the sound. It was the mournful cry of the male loon as the light faded. As they listened the bird called once more, long and sorrowing. Then, distinct on the still air, came the pattering sound of the bird leaving the water. The hunter of fish cleared the trees. Then, emitting a magnificent requiem from its fluttering throat, the bird that mated for life flew away. Its cry faded away on the evening air. But no mate flew behind it.
Secondly, there is the impressive imagery which Mr Collins excels at creating. The following excerpt introduces us to Kop, on the trail of a deer that he has just speared.
The figure who stepped into the game trail made no attempt to follow his prey. His leg muscles were tense and cramped from crouching. Long before the dawn he had hidden beneath the sloping, wet boughs of the spruce tree.
It had been carefully chosen, hard by the twisting trail of the kosweet and downwind from the flaring pink nostrils of the deer, which had led the small herd. The hunter had let the young stag, proud and strong, pass where he lay hidden. The rut was barely over and the buck’s meat would be tainted and foul-smelling with its sex glands. Instead he had chosen a female as his target and set out.
Cold autumn rain drizzled through the trees and settled onto the alder bush gorse and low shrubs. The raw wind that blew from the grey east carried the moisture deeper into the shrouded forest. Fog hung among the trees in gossamer webs.
The luxury of stretching relaxed the muscles of the tawny-skinned hunter. He turned into the wind and followed the winding trail the wounded deer had taken into the nearby forest. He wore deerskin clothing, which, with the soaking he’d gotten from his long wait, stank of old animal fat. The hide was plastered to his lean frame in dripping black, grey, and mottled white patches of heavy hair.
He had the easy gait of one born to walk, each effortless step the full length of his reach, a distance-eating stride, light and soundless. The slightly angular, hairless face was framed with a mane of hair the colour of a raven on a rainy night, the weight of it resting on his shoulders. The moisture beaded in his oily hair before dripping onto the warm, reddish-brown skin of his exposed neck. He was a Beothuk Indian, and he didn’t know if he was one of the last of his breed on the Island of Newfoundland.
The Last Beothuk has come to us, not only from the pages of history but from the brilliant mind of Mr. Collins, as he tells yet another forgotten story of Newfoundland. The record of relations between Europeans and any of Canada’s Indigenous peoples is definitely not a pleasant one, so the reader may be left somewhat disheartened after finishing The Last Beothuk. Nevertheless, we can take eminent satisfaction in the certainty that the now extinct Beothuk’s story has been well-told by one of Canada’s master storytellers. As such, The Last Beothuk goes on my 2018 Longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Historical Fiction.
Included in the book are several black & white images, an Afterword by the author, a bibliography and a select glossary of Beothuk words.