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library and archives canada cataloguing in publication
Richards, David Adams, 1950-
Crimes against my brother / David Adams Richards.
Issued also in electronic format.
eBook ISBN 978-0-385-67117-0
I. Title.
ps8585.i17c75 2013 c813'.54 c2012-906599-4
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of
the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or
locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover image: © Bruno Ehrs/Corbis
Book design: Andrew Roberts
Printed and bound in the USA
Published in Canada by Doubleday Canada,
a division of Random House of Canada Limited,
a Penguin Random House Company
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
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for peggy,
who loved enough to stand by me through darkness
for my children,
whose love brought me to light
for philip and walter lee
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I should note that Sydney Henderson, one of the main characters in
Mercy among the Children, plays a minor role in this book. For this novel
takes place at the same time, and in the same world, as Mercy and deals
with three people who knew Henderson, and of his pact with God.
This is what propels them to make a pact with one another. Those who
know my world will recognize certain other characters as well—ones
who have minor roles in various parts of the text.
This place is fictional, of course—it always has been. The characters
too are fictional. If this novel says anything to the reader, it is what I
have managed to learn over many years of being a rather solitary figure
in Canadian letters: take heart and know that no betrayal is so self-
infatuated, self-serving or brutal it cannot, in the end, be overcome.
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In great hearts the cruelty of life gives birth to good.
—Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate
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Ian Preston had some good times with his two cousins,
Evan Young and Harold Dew.
There were two or three things that united them, as if they were
tethered together in the hold of a ship.
One, each boy grew to manhood on the Bonny Joyce–Clare’s Longing
stretch of the river.
Two, all three knew Joyce Fitzroy and Lonnie Sullivan, all of them
had to work for Sullivan and all had a chance at getting Joyce Fitzroy’s
inheritance. But the one who didn’t seek it got it. That fact is a strange
anomaly in the heavens, one that might make us believe or disbelieve.
That is, no matter how things happen, some will say yes, there is a God,
and others will say no, this proves no God exists. As for God himself—he
has already made up his mind.
I was their cousin too, or at least that is what was said. But I made
myself away when young—my mother had that middle-class strain of
belief, for the most part full of genteel hypocrisy, that her boy should be
better than other boys—and I did not speak of our family relationship
with old drunk Joyce Fitzroy, who was an uncle and rumoured to have
money; or the local junk wheeler-dealer Lonnie Sullivan, who impover-
ished so many with his schemes. I escaped that world, and said I would
never go back. But these boys, Ian Preston, Evan Young and Harold Dew,
each of them every bit as smart as I, grew up in that world and never really
escaped it. I remember them in grade two when I was in grade seven, or so
says a photo that was taken and laid away; and then in grade seven, when
I was in grade twelve, and they were standing together in the snow out-
side the small shack that was Evan Young’s home; and finally as I got older
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4 david adams richards
and was doing my thesis on adolescent angst and trying to get accepted to
a college in New York, and taking the train to Yale and seeing myself as a
winner, I would remember them and how they grew up without a chance—
and how they were supposedly less than me. And I believed this until I saw
the other world—that is, the world of the university, which held within
its fallow bones its own fecal corruption. And then, after that—after my
doctorate and post-doctorate, and after the swimmingly grand success of
tenure, and after walking the streets of Madrid in autumn and seeing my
work published in small academic journals—I longed again for their
world. Yes, longed even, at times, for the pain and blood and remorse of
that world. I remembered Sydney Henderson too, and how Ian and Evan
and Harold turned against his quest for God—how they ridiculed it; that
is, ridiculed how a man as hard and rough in youth as Sydney Henderson
could turn to God. Sydney was a joke to them, so they made a joke of it
all—just as many others did. But seeing how those boys had so little,
I could understand why they would mock him. As you may know, this
Sydney Henderson became the study of one book and at least seven theses
showing how he longed for God in such a lonely place in spite of the odds.
So I want to tell the story of these three, and how they bashed God
in the head and refused to believe, and valued one another above all.
People initially thought they professed these things as a jest—a practi-
cal joke on the world—but by and by it came to be no joke at all.
I spoke to my students often—all of whom had written their inesti-
mable essays, their left-leaning theories on the dispossessed, their bril-
liant studies of our disenfranchised, every piece so polished you would
think it publishable in The Globe and Mail—about these three. Yet I real-
ized that not one of my students had ever slept in a room with rats
walking across the floor like Ian Preston had. Not one of them, at four-
teen, had stood up against men coming in at night drunk to fuck his
mother, like Evan Young. Not one had carried a water bucket up a gang-
plank, or tossed wood all day until dark, like Harold Dew. Not one had
cut his own wood for the winter, trapped beaver against a black brook,
killed an animal with a stick. Or gone at twelve years of age to work for
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crimes against my brother 5
Lonnie Sullivan. That is, even as I taught these students, these pleasant,
affable, upwardly mobile young men and women, I wondered what could
their inestimable essays ever say beyond what I myself had known in my
blood by the time I was ten years old? And why did my mother and
father want this for me—this world where I had become something of a
figure of merit? To fuss and preen over me when I came home?
And I began to think that since I knew all three, I could relate some-
thing of their story that my students might not have caught.
Harold Dew was the biggest. He would go bald at twenty-eight years
of age. He would become a hypochondriac and worry all his life about
colds or some odd disease taking him off. He would be known from Neguac
to Boistown as “Big Harold Dew.” He would be as well known on the river
as anyone here, and at times just meeting him would make your day.
Ian Preston was the smallest. His hair was ginger and his face fine—
or refined, as if in the pale backwoods some grand nobleman had
stopped 143 years before and put down roots near a stream, and built
himself a shack. And there in that shack, near some hidden brook, Ian
Preston would someday be born. And when he was, the first rocket
ships would be blasting away from the earth while his weak mother
would be alone, on a rusted cot, in a soundless room.
Still, though I say this, touching Ian was like touching a piece of steel.
Evan Young was the toughest and kindest. He in some ways was the
most enigmatic, the most secretive—perhaps too the smartest.
But all of them were smart—that was the problem. My students
would never understand how each one of the three—Harold, Evan and
Ian, standing in the snow against an old dark shack, waiting to have a
bolt of the moonshine that Joyce Fitzroy ran off—how all of them were
smarter, more resilient and more joyful than they.
The three of them, Harold, Evan and Ian, went to work when they
were kids for Lonnie Sullivan, who hired boys to work the woods for
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6 david adams richards
him, for he could pay them less, and impinge upon their freedoms more
and more as the years went on and they accrued more debt. It was
an honourable idea: that workers themselves would accrue debt, not
for God’s sake the man they were working for. In fact, Ian was told
that when his grandfather retired from Benson’s store after forty-seven
years of work, the old man had exactly $11.95.
So the boys worked for Sullivan. He would pay them ten dollars—
easy enough for boys to live on at the start of a week. But before half
the week was over they would want or need more money, and Sullivan
would say, “I can give it to you—but you will have to work this long.”
And he would hold out his hands as if it was a joke and say, “You have
to work as long as my dick before I can pay you more.” The conditions
were always to his benefit. And their working environment at the time
was harsher than most. In fact, I knew two dozen boys who worked this
way for people much like Sullivan from one side of the river to the
other, children who were thrust into the world with few options and
little hope of finding ones.
Over those years Lonnie Sullivan had a host of women. He impreg-
nated more than a few—usually widows or old spinsters, many older than
he was. I know this now for it was researched in depth by one of my
students, Ann Marie Delong, and she came up with many things—old
baptisms and confirmations—that told a tale. The tale of long ago. That
is, it was part of his nature to start out helping those he would eventually
inflict with pain; that is, his great broad back and happy-go-lucky wave
would seem like a blessing—for a tiny while.
From what I see, it started years ago, when he got the local contract
to plow snow. He was a man of thirty-eight or thirty-nine then, unat-
tached, big, brawling and loud.
Sullivan would use his snowplow to help certain women out. That is,
he wouldn’t charge them a cent. He’d clear those roadways and drives
with his old plow, the smell of diesel in the air and the pipe stack bil-
lowing out against the cold. He would park his tractor with the plow
up, and let it idle as he went up the stairs of country houses; and he’d
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crimes against my brother 7
stay for an hour or two, sometimes leaving close to midnight. There
were at least three women in their forties, widows with school-age chil-
dren, making do on pensions, whom he impregnated and then left to
fend for themselves in the boggy lands below us. They would end up
terrified of him in some way—understanding too late that he meant
nothing with his endearments. In so many ways, this was talked about
and laughed at. And those women were left by themselves, alone in a
house off some dark winter turn along the road.
Still, Sullivan’s main interest was in repossessing things from people
who owed him for loans he gave at a horrible rate. This was a broad
business and took him from one side of the river to the other, winter
and summer, and indentured many. There was a story that he had
knocked up Mrs. Brideau and left her husband to take care of the child.
And this child was Annette Brideau. Most of us came to realize that
this story was false, simple gossip, and as harsh as gossip can be in a
small town—a story that made the rounds because the husband was
a weak man who Sullivan often bullied. But Sullivan did have a certain
power over this girl, just as he did over most others he knew for
most of his life.
I met Annette when I was young, around the same time I first noticed
these three boys whose story I am telling. I did not know what role she
would play in their lives, or how their lives would play out in my life—
or how I would come to view them at first as unsavoury backwoods
examples of Bonny Joyce, and then come to recognize in all of them,
after a time, my own history’s brutal and tender blood, hidden as it may
be under my suit and tie.
Annette was an only child and from the age of fourteen a strutting
beauty—and she could not help this. She could no more help com-
manding attention than a meteor bursting out of the dark air, or a
metaphor so beautiful you put it in a song. Lonnie Sullivan had many
youngsters hanging about him, but she was his favourite, and she
designed to be his favourite from the first—just as she designed to be
everyone’s favourite as much as she could. Nothing exemplifies rural
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8 david adams richards
life more than those who with longing and hope want, in one fashion
or another, to escape it.
No matter how he spoke about helping others, Sullivan committed
offences against these people, almost clandestine, almost whimsical and
almost unnoticed—a dollar here, a quart of oil there, a mistake in num-
bers that lessened your pay or a bill you paid back in agony and destitu-
tion that was not counted in your favour. Sullivan would sniff and shrug
when you tried to plead your case. Or look hurt when you happened to
catch him in a lie. But this was true: it could happen in any life, urban
or rural. And Sullivan from the first moment he spoke to someone—as
he stood in his office with a cigar in his mouth—never really hid his
intention. We must, in some way, give him that.
I discovered this next part of the story almost by accident—and
have no reason to disbelieve or discount it. It starts out one early spring
long ago, with a thousand board feet of lumber that Sullivan told Ceril
Palmer he could have to redo the back of his house. But when it came
time for Ceril to take it, Sullivan demanded the price be deducted from
his pay. A pay that had been withheld since April 15.
“I have had enough of your lies,” Palmer said.
“I have never told a lie,” he answered, and went in and closed the
office door with a quick snap of the lock.
The quick snap of the lock allowed some to think Sullivan was
frightened. It was a careless assumption.
Over the next month or so certain of those men came together and
plotted their revenge like you would an assassination. Where to do it,
who would be involved and how to get it done consumed many people
for a long time. Sullivan had six men who worked for him full-time, and
at least four of them were included in this conspiracy.
In mid-May a Barryville man attacked him, punching him off his
milk box at a horse haul at the community centre. Wearing a white
shirt and tie, and heavy old suit jacket and frayed suit pants as part
of his obligation as president of the Bonny Joyce Community Centre,
Sullivan stood and fought back with two quick punches to the ribs
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crimes against my brother 9
and a left hook, delivered so fast and hard that he left his opponent
prone on the ground. And the two others waiting to attack, seeing
their biggest ally stunned, left off and moved away. In fact, they
snuck away in the confusion of the crowd and loitered together
behind the tents.
This was always remembered by us as a strange and pivotal moment
in Lonnie Sullivan’s life.
There was a sickening pause as the man lay there, beaten, his blood
on the dirt, unconscious, like a sleeping child, with Lonnie Sullivan
standing above him in triumph. But how in triumph—in what way was
it a triumph? It was the triumph of a great man burdened by sudden
betrayal, and looking from side to side to see who he might or might not
implicate, and wondering about those who now stood together behind
the dinner tent. The look in his eyes, and on his brooding, callous face,
was almost depraved, and everyone spoke of it later.
Few ever bothered Big Lonnie again. Yet he was hurt by this incident,
deep in his soul. He smoked his cigars in the dark by his work shed.
He accepted no offers of copper or tin roofing, but whiled away his time
playing crazy eights with a boy who came by. And it was then, while
talking to this boy, Harold Dew, that he decided he would hire boys
instead of men. That he would reorganize his little empire, and it would
be “done right this time.”
And a week later he sent Harold Dew to find out who had set up this
attack on him.
“You come back with that information and I will be in your debt—
and it is a debt I will carry,” he said. He said this most solemnly, and
with great feeling.
So Harold left the shed. I saw him as he walked away, seemingly
almost stunned by a certain obligation, incurious and detached as he
looked at me and passed by, nodding only at the last moment in recogni-
tion that I had come home from my college courses. He disappeared
down the road, a youth conditioned already to be who he was and noth-
ing else, already blunt, brutal and brave.
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10 david adams richards
Harold went back to see his mentor in the rain three days later, as
drizzle was falling off the porch roof. He had one name to offer—a name
he had heard while playing horseshoes, and that he’d carried with him
until he found out the other names.
Hank Robb. Hank Robb and two others had set up this attack.
“Ahhh,” was all Lonnie Sullivan said, “ahhh”—as if spellbound, as
if he had known it even before he sent the boy to find out. As if he
believed he had done so much good, and so much injury had come to
him because of it.
But for some long time—some many excruciating days and weeks—
Lonnie Sullivan seemed to do nothing. Hank Robb and the other men
came and went from work, and the endless days tagged onto one another,
filling the void with agitation and worry, until Sullivan had settled not
only on who might have done it but on how he might gain retribution.
And so when he had blackballed the men from any opportunity for a job
or other employment—from the piles to the wharf, from Neguac to
Doaktown—he called them to come see him. The first he called into
the office on October 27; the second, on the twenty-eighth. Then he
waited a day, to let the last one suffer and not know.
On October 30 he called Hank Robb into the shed, into the back room,
where he looked over the receipts he kept in the drawer and threw Robb’s
severance at him: eighty-nine dollars. The other two fared better than
Hank Robb: both had jobs offered to them within a month, and nothing
Lonnie said about them stuck. But with Hank Robb it was different. He
was considered a disgrace to begin with. I know, for he was my uncle; and
in that way, I am connected. Robb went into a grave depression, and three
times he brought his daughters with him to the shed and asked for his job
back, using the daughters as leverage without a voice, their presence
more conspicuous than their little bodies could imagine.
“Ahhh. If I got up from this here seat at this here moment, on this
here afternoon with this here cigar in my mouth—you would run hind
yer daughters and let them be beat for you,” Lonnie said the third time
Hank came begging him.
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crimes against my brother 11
“I wouldn’t,” Hank said. But he was trembling and alone. He was
scared and sad and defeated.
And from what I have heard, as soon as Lonnie stood up, Hank ran
and hid behind his daughters; and what is more, little Sara Robb tried
to protect him.
Hank Robb’s torment was exacerbated by the deliberate taunts of
others, some of whom had said they would stand with him if he took up
the cause. And when he left the cold shed at night, holding his daughters
by the hand, his former compatriots not only ignored him but enjoyed
doing so. With the dwindling of the money, with the absence of work and
with the idea, constant and unremitting, of his own shame, he began his
drinking again, after seven years away from the bottle.
Before Christmas that year, Hank Robb drove his car off the Portage
Bridge with his family still inside. The incident didn’t make many
papers. My mother phoned me when I was in Boston, and asked me to
please, whatever I did, stay away from the funeral.
One child, Ethel Robb, lived because of the courage of her sister
Sara, who, shattering her left leg with the effort, kept Ethel’s head
above water in the submerged car. Joyce Fitzroy happened by, and was
able to rescue them both. Hank Robb was dead on impact.
“Why I came this way—why I walked down toward the river—for
the life of God I do not know,” Joyce Fitzroy was heard saying later,
wrapped in a blanket and drinking a cup of tea.
After that, Sara went from one doctor’s office to the other, in her one
print dress, to try to repair her shortened leg, but it could not be done.
She went to Dr. Mackenzie many times in the days just before Mackenzie
retired. But except for the doctor taking off her sock, and tickling her
foot on the bottom until she giggled, nothing more was done.
Then these visits to the doctor’s stopped and a kind of whimsical
tragedy set into her lively little face and features. Soon she rarely went
out at all—or only at night. For she was teased about her leg and how
she walked—never by the majority, yet we all know the world is not
made up of the majority and never has been.
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12 david adams richards
Neither Harold, Evan nor Ian teased her.
But others did, and would.
I will skip ahead now by a few years.
Annette Brideau was Sara Robb’s friend, and liked to tell people that
she was. It showed her to be kind and thoughtful, and she liked this
too—that is, she liked that with Sara tagging along, limping behind
her, she would be thought of as kind and thoughtful. And indeed, she
could be both kind and thoughtful when she wanted to be, or had to be.
Annette Brideau was the same age as those three boys, and she was also
beautiful. At fifteen she scraped together what she could to dress like
twenty. Her heritage came from the very earth and trees around her, from
where she was born. The trouble was, and it was not entirely her fault,
she was often enticed to do mischief, and to be mischievous against her
better nature, or in contest with someone else, to prove that she, Annette
Brideau, did not have to follow rules. Then she would go to church and
pretend to pray and look at the statues and declare she would do better.
Many times her mother took a belt to her. Many times people could
hear her screeching as she was whacked. Then the house would go silent
and the beaten child would remain inside, upstairs in her small room,
where the roof angled over the porch. Many times I have heard that her
mother, pious and respectable, was jealous of Annette’s beauty and of
how so many youngsters loved her.
But her willful nature would overcome her, and Annette would find
herself once again doing something she should not. And this led to a
pivotal moment in our story. It happened in a small room at the convent
on a spring day when she was in grade eleven. Annette was caught
cheating on exams. (I sometimes wonder, did it matter that it happened
at this moment in her life—that she was not caught cheating on her
English exam the day before, or her mathematics exam the day after? Is
there any answer to these things?)
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