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Freedom in the Novels of David Adams Richards

Freedom In The Novels Of David Adams Richards


Canadian author David Adams Richards begins his 2009 work of non-fiction God Is: My Search for Faith in a Secular World with a discussion of whether he would describe himself as a Christian. The challenge with answering that question honestly would be to say yes. However, as Richards puts it, “if I say I am a Christian, and a practicing Catholic, it might very well elicit a preconceived notion of what that means, which in itself is giving in to a convenient falsehood.”[2] So, Richards gives a different answer, affirming only that he believes in God.

Richards is implying that to answer the question in the affirmative imposes a set of interpretive assumptions about his work.[3]  It is likely for this reason that his novels, which are infused with a spirituality and point of view that are clearly Christian, seldom make this argument explicit. This is so much the case that many readers of Richards’s novels, and many critics, do not find in them stories of redemption, but rather stories of violence, darkness and despair. Much of this reaction is rooted in the frequent depictions of suffering that are inflicted upon the most virtuous and innocent of Richards’s characters. They appear to be helpless victims of poverty, a cruel natural environment, and the evil actions of others. In short, it appears to many as if Richards’s novels depict a world formed by a predetermined and malevolent fate.

Yet if Richards’s novels are read closely, one can see a clear evocation of the existence and value of a redemptive freedom in human life. At the same time, in each of his novels is the understanding true liberty cannot be “bought with power.”[4]  Instead, Richards offers a particularly Christian form of liberty in his novels.

Richards describes freedom as a spontaneous act of self-sacrifice that reveals the foundation and essence of human nature. As he says, “the only way a person can be free is through self-sacrifice.  The only way a person can get something is to give something . . .  The whole idea is that the underlying humanity of being a human being continually frees, and that spontaneous action always frees you.”[5] This statement is further clarified in God Is where Richard describes the natural impulse and inhibition of children to love and feel joy. In the immediate and spontaneous expression of happiness and love, children, Richards suggests, are free, and it’s only in the expression of these childlike qualities that individuals return to the freedom that is the essence of human nature.[6] When uninhibited by thoughts of how one is expected to act or what actions might best serve individual self-interest, Richards suggests that one’s natural response to the world is of love. The true lover does not seek his good at the expense of another, but rather seeks the good of the beloved regardless of his own interests. Further, Richards’s argument suggests, in an act of self-sacrifice born from love, the lover discovers that he has not sacrificed anything at all, for achieving the good of another is his true interest and desire. In contrast to political philosophers who claim that the foundation of human nature is self-interest, Richards suggests that in loving others one fulfills one’s telos or the end for which human nature is specifically suited. In doing this, Richards argues, individuals ultimately achieve what they want and are therefore free.

However, Richard also notes that there is something inherent in human nature that “wants the child in us to fail.”[7] The move from childlike innocence to a state of self-interest is described in Genesis as a moment in which humans, hoping to usurp the power of God, seek knowledge of good and evil and come to know and experience death. Philosophically, the image of the fall of Adam and Eve speaks of the moment when individuals realize the finite nature of their lives and that of the world in which they live. When this occurs, the temptation is to no longer see themselves as part of a community of friends and lovers, but as competitors for scarce resources that will only prolong their lives for a short duration prior to their inevitable demise. When the finitude of the world becomes the focus, people are drawn to seek the satisfaction of their finite desires at the expense of others.

This, Richard suggests, is a moment of enslavement. The finite world, which has as its nature instability and flux, can never be a source of satisfaction. Moreover, no matter how well a person succeeds in this arena, one is invariably conscious that this life will end. There can be no complete freedom in the merely material order, for one is always caught in a struggle for survival and this is a quest that all will eventually lose.  Instead, as explored in Richards’s novels, liberty requires a certain freedom from material concerns such that one will sacrifice these goods for the good of another, willing not just their material well-being, but, in addition, their moral good, or, in Christian terms, the good of their soul.  By these means, one attends not to the finite, but to the infinite and eternal worth of another.

Richards’s novels depict images of human greatness as well as human vice. Richards argues that the very qualities that are the foundation of freedom, specifically spontaneity and self-sacrifice, are the basis of all great actions and he Richards describes greatness as stemming from actions based in “innocence, generosity, kindness, and goodness.”[8] Freedom, Richards suggests, attends all greatness.  The heroes of his books are those who have managed to escape those factors that determine the course of their lives and constrain their activity.  They are not limited by their self-interest, but instead spontaneously respond to the needs of others even if it means sacrificing their own desires.  They achieve greatness because they have achieved freedom. Richards thus says:

“The grounds upon which an individual is made willing to sacrifice himself for others is, in part, recognition of equality – no one is superior to anyone else and thus everyone is deserving of goodwill. In this way, we might understand Richards not as a reactionary, who opposes and rejects the modern world, but rather a champion of human freedom and equality.”

The darkness of Richards’s novels does not serve the purpose of merely highlighting an existential crisis nor is it simply a political commentary on the corruption of the modern world. Rather, the constraints faced by his characters serve the purpose of highlighting the moments in which they manage to break free in the face of oppression.  These moments speak to the spontaneous action that Richards’s describes as the fount of freedom.  When viewed in this light, Richards’s novels are studies of human resilience, and the triumphs of his characters are the moments of their greatest freedom.

Richards’s novels are mostly set in rural communities where the constraints of a difficult climate coupled with often crippling poverty appear to sharply limit the possibilities of human life and happiness.  Modern developments in technology and human services designed to enhance human freedom and satisfaction are shown in these novels to have the opposite affects.  Technological advancements in the forestry industry destroy a way of life for a generation of men and the communities that these forests sustained.  Well-meaning social service professionals, seeking to improve the lives of the characters we meet, become instead oppressors, imposing a modern account of happiness on individuals quite satisfied to live in a pre-modern world.

Richards’s novels are neither fantastical nor particularly mystical and most commentators remark on their stark realism. Nonetheless, characters in several of his novels are further limited by instances of what is taken to be divine intervention in their lives.  For example, in Friends of Meager Fortune, a prophecy is made concerning the protagonists’ fate prior to their birth, while in both Mercy Among the Children and Crimes Against My Brothers the protagonists willingly enter into pacts with God.  In each instance, an engagement with the metaphysical world results in momentous consequences within the finite and natural order.  Read in the rough chronological order of their setting, the arguments of these novels seem to build on each other, revealing a complicated relationship between the human and the divine, with human freedom lying in the balance.  Ultimately, Richards reveals an account of the universal that is ever present to human beings and only through which can real, practical freedom be achieved.

Much of the struggle of the characters in these novels is to recognize and will their telos.  Rooted in excessive self-love or pride, many of the characters we meet imagine they will be free if they can become independent and self-sufficient, which results in forsaking the individuals they love.  The starkest example of this is Lyle Henderson, Mercy Among the Children. Lyle consistently seeks to oppose the passive example of his father, Sydney, and instead gain power in and over the world, with the consequence being the tragic death of his brother Percy, who he has left alone in the middle of a snowstorm in order to seek revenge on the man he believes killed his father.  Rather than achieving what he wants, Lyle is devastated, having been “freed” from his brother.

The psychological development and movement of his characters speaks to his argument of a universal truth that transcends history and culture.  Like Lyle, the characters in Richards’s novels often imagine themselves to be self-sufficient, dependent on nothing other than their wills, such that they ignore or rewrite the past so that it suits their current proclivities. Yet, love pervades their memories, continuously revealing to them both the past that they believed they have lost, but also the future that they desire.  In this, the faculty of their memory reveals to them the transcendent nature of love, existing through and in time.  Richards’s story telling often moves back forth through time, using flashbacks to earlier periods of the plotline to underline this point.

In his novels Richards explores and critiques conservative and liberal conceptions of freedom. Both Meager Fortune and Mercy explore the possibility of returning, as a contemporary individual, to a pre-modern or ancient attitude.  However, a return to Greece or Rome seems neither possible nor desirable at the end of these novels. In The Lost Highway and Crimes Against My Brothers, Richards explores the modern understanding of freedom, wherein humans, by means of a more liberal outlook and technological developments, might achieve a kind of radical liberation from all previous constraints.  This route, however, also turns out to be unsatisfying.  In contrast to both of these positions, Richards’s charts a middle ground, proposing that the human quest for freedom might only be satisfied when universal and objective truths are reconciled to the particular desires and lives of individuals.

Forgiving our Brothers

In Crimes Against My Brothers, this understanding of human freedom and redemption is most clearly presented. As noted, Richards’s Christianity is not generic, but quite deliberately constructed in its Augustinian character. More accurately, one might describe this position as Christian Platonism, although the version of this that Richards takes up is closely aligned with the thought of St. Augustine.[9] Augustine is explicitly referenced in a number of Richards’s works and direct parallels with his thought are present throughout. There is a vast body of scholarship on the nature of Augustine’s Platonism. Indeed, a substantial scholarly debate took place in the twentieth century as to whether Augustine was a Christian or a Platonist. In truth, he was both, and the argument that he works out in, for example, The Confessions, demonstrates the compatibility of these two traditions.[10]

This Augustinian position, as explicated in The Confessions, informs the Christianity that runs through David Adams Richards’s novels. Like Augustine, Richards is no Manichee. He does not despise nature, despite its sometimes harsh presentation in his works. Nor does he think that the root of the evil that he so graphically presents lies in our sensual nature, despite the violent passion that often bring harm to his characters. Instead, Richards portrays, through the small worlds inhabited by his characters, an entire cosmos, one that moves in a totally coherent relationship to ultimate Being. Rooted in small towns and rural locations in the northeast corner of the small Canadian province of New Brunswick, his often poor and frequently uneducated characters represent not some regional curiosity of human society, but rather universal moral truths and spiritual matters of eternal consequence. As one character in Crimes says, “‘Human drama and human greatness, unfolds wherever humans are.’”[11]

On the one side of this tension, we find external and universal forces at work. These appear negatively as fate or what the Greeks understood as tuche (chance). Characters’ lives are irrevocably altered for the worse by chance circumstances or seemingly random accidents.[12] Set alongside the implacable and often crushing power of nature, the external forces acting against human being in these novels seem arbitrary, and, at best, indifferent to human life. Richards deliberately restricts the appearances of grace, or divine benevolence, so that when these moments appear they are all the more striking.

On the other side of this tension are acts of human freedom. Richards is nothing if not a writer interested in the question of evil. Like Augustine before him, for Richards, the source of evil is not the random ordering of the universe. The awful acts of violence and, even worse from a moral standpoint, betrayal, that occur in his novels require the existence of human freedom to be of moral significance. They are the result of conscious and more or less deliberate choices, depending on the information possessed by the perpetrators. However, the evidence of human autonomy in Richards’s works lies not only in evil actions, for there are also clear acts of self-sacrifice and love. Again, these actions only have moral worth because they are performed by agents who could have freely chosen to act otherwise. As Richards says, “Even on a patch of frozen soil, a solitary man is his own true nation, and free as he chooses to be. No moment or comfort is ever secure, no matter where we live; or future certain for any of us, no matter where we live. How we respond to this is up to us alone. Each one of us can choose to be free.” [13]

In Crimes Against My Brothers, there is a clear account of freedom that places great moral weight on individual choices, but places these choices within a cosmos in which the divine is a real and active presence. How the universe can be governed by divine will and still allow human freedom is a great theological question. In Crimes Against My Brothers, the reconciliation of individual freedom to a divine order is shown not as brought about by religious institutions or theology, but through friendship and good will. For much of the novel, however, ill will and self-interest drives the actions of the protagonists.

The foundational act in the novel is an oath taken by three friends: Ian Preston, Evan Young and Harold Dew. Stranded in an ice storm on the remote and terrifying Good Friday Mountain, the three friends are faced with death. Left alone for three days, they nearly die from a combination of cold and starvation. With youthful bravado, they each cut a finger and mingle their blood. Before swearing their oaths, they talk about Sydney Henderson, the protagonist of another of Richards’s novels, Mercy Among the Children, who made a quite different oath. As detailed in that novel, Sydney goes on to live a life devoted to his vision of service to God at great personal cost. The three boys mock Sydney’s faith, and, like Capaneus in ancient mythology,[14] they mock the divine himself: “God will never bother me – there is not one thing he will do to me,” Harold boasts.[15] Yet, even in mocking and pretending to dismiss Sydney, the three remain bothered by his example for the rest of their lives.

Richards explicitly describes the pact made by the boys done for the sake of freedom: “The idea of their pact without God not only enthused but enthralled them. It allowed them the freedom to do what they must – or in time, perhaps, to do what they wanted.”[16] They determine to rely only on each other from that time forward and to reject dependence on anyone else, human or divine. That the boys survive their ordeal on the mountain serves as proof to them of the truth of their rejection of religious superstition. Like the young Augustine, the boys take delight precisely in their opposition to the good.[17] For a while everything goes well for the three friends. They achieve notoriety and others fear them. Delighting in their newfound power, Harold exclaims, “Nothing will come between us now!”[18] Shortly, however, events begin to occur that divide the three boys and eventually turn them against each other with tragic consequences.

At the center of problems is Annette Brideau, a woman that both Harold and Ian love and Lonnie Sullivan, a lumber operator who has a finger in everything that goes on in their small town. Lonnie takes delight in sowing discord among the three friends and is happy to use Annette to do so. Throughout the novel she wreaks havoc in the lives of others, blissfully self-absorbed and yet innocent of self-knowledge. Both Ian and Harold have crushes on Annette. Rather than seeing the nature of love as serving or willing the good of another, both Harold and Ian at this moment understand love as a kind of possession.  They imagine that Annette, a scarce resource, can only be possessed by one of them, driving them apart. Annette, alternatively, tries to assert her own independence, believing that in manipulating the boys she avoids being possessed by anyone. Rather than finding freedom in submitting their will to the good of the person they love and thus finding happiness once that is achieved, Ian, Harold, and Annette, instead become enslaved in a quest for power over one another.

At first, Crimes Against My Brothers appears to demonstrate how little control we have over our fates. This is seen in what occurs to all three protagonists, as well as what happens to lesser characters throughout the novel. Ian Preston, for example, is described as, “not only primarily moral but primarily loyal.”[19] He is saving, hopelessly, from his meager wages to buy a store in town, where his talent for repairing electrical appliances can be employed. He proceeds with the best of intentions, but unintended consequences resulting from this lead to the ruin of many. Ian approaches his great uncle Joyce Fitzroy, a hermit who is reputed to have squirreled away a vast fortune. Ian is hoping to buy an old trunk that Fitzroy possessed to give as a wedding present to his friend Evan and his fiancé Molly. This will cost him much of his small savings and Ian intends to sacrifice his dream to do good for his friend. Unbeknownst to Ian, Evan is also planning on approaching Fitzroy, with a much grander plan: he hopes Fitzroy will bankroll his dream of owning the old Jameson sawmill.

When Ian pays his well-intentioned call to Fitzroy he discovers that the trunk is long gone, but is startled when Fitzroy offers him his fortune, kept in cash in a tin box in his shabby house, allowing Ian to go from being broke to realizing his dream of buying the store in town. Shortly after, Evan arrives at Fitzroy’s only to discover that his friend has been given the very fortune that he had hoped would be his. Compounding this, Harold also goes to Fitzroy’s shortly after Ian, also seeking the money. He too learns that Ian has been there already and has gotten everything. What began as a mission rooted in good by Ian turns into what everyone in the community, including his friends, will come to view as an enormous act of betrayal, never mind the truth – that Ian had no idea that Evan wanted money to buy his sawmill, and more or less had it thrust upon him by Fitzroy with no scheming or lying involved. Rumor and innuendo take their course, and Ian, a man of virtue, becomes a pariah and his own pride prevents him from explaining what really happened.

This appears as the form of classical tragedy where someone is the captive of events beyond his control.  Yet each of the three men are shown to be complicit even when they are being manipulated by others, for they are all too ready to choose to think ill of one another. They are not passive victims, but they choose to pretend that they did not have choices to make.

At exactly this point in the novel, the novel’s narrator draws our attention to the question of God in relationship to the choices each of these men has made:

“Since this comes into the story now, I will mention it. That is, the discussion of God. People always said I wasn’t cut out for academia—and, well, I suppose this is part of the reason. Some of my students over the years have asked me, do I believe in God? I am not sure, really one way or the other. I will only say the concept obsesses us all. By this time, no one of the three blood brothers believed in God. God was an absurdity, hocus-pocus concocted to disable the weak and control the poor. . . .  And just as Sydney Henderson had made a pact to honor God, the blood brothers made a pact not to. But now all three not only suspected one another of betrayal but hated one another.”[20]

By drawing our attention at this point to the absence of the divine in the lives of his protagonists, Richards indicates that the ability to love has its foundation in God.  In other words, loving means to participate and share in the nature of God.  Having explicitly rejected God, Ian, Evan, and Harold are no longer able to will anyone’s good.

Twice in the novel, Richards quotes a line from Yeats’ poem, “Easter, 1916,” a poem written in response to the Easter uprising in Ireland and the execution of its leaders. Referring to the long struggle for freedom and the violence that accompanied it, Yeats writes, “Too long a freedom/Can make a stone of the heart.” Richards quotes this line in reference to both Ian and Harold. Presumably, we can extend it to Evan and even Annette.  Seeking to be free, these characters sacrifice everything that might obligate them to another. In the course of so doing, they give up on the possibility of the love and community wherein their freedom, as Richards describes it truly lies.  Ian, the narrator notes, “almost never bothered with people now—and he never bothered with them because they had hurt him, and they had hurt him because he trusted them.  So he was sure that as long as he did not trust, he would not only be happy—he would be safe.”[21]  As Evan says, “‘I have used up my goodwill.  I was filled with goodness and will, and goodwill for a while.  It ruined me.’”[22]

To complete the account of misunderstanding and betrayal, Richards introduces the character of Sarah Robb. A paragon of virtue, she will go on to be a physician who works with Doctors Without Borders. As a child, in a terrible car accident, Sarah saved her sister, Ethel, at great cost to herself, sustaining a crippling leg injury that lasts for life and makes her an object of mockery.  Further, she is sexually assaulted as a child, again while protecting her sister. Despite all of the suffering of her past, Sarah alone does not judge Ian, and he begins courting her, making plans to get married. Annette Brideau is Sarah’s friend, but she betrays her several times at once. Annette turns from Harold, who loves her, to Ian, who was once spurned by her, but who now has value because of his fortune. Betraying Sarah, Annette also draws Ian into his first conscious act of betrayal, as opposed to the imagined betrayals that he had been blamed for in the past. Ian is seduced by Annette, not only sexually, but more seriously, seduced into hurting the one person in the community who had not turned against him, Sarah Robb. Richards details the devastation that such seductions bring on the personal level, portraying at once Ian’s self-justification in harming someone who loves him and the intense pain of Sarah, the one who is harmed.

Even further, when Ian meets Sara, he realizes a possibility of a return to friendship and fulfillment.  He plans on hiring Corky Thorn, Ethel’s boyfriend, and expanding his business.  At the same time, he will buy the Jameson sawmill for Evan, and believes that, in time, even Harold will be reconciled with them.  Ian knows that if he chooses Annette, all the good he might do will be lost.  To choose Annette is in an essential way to forsake his good will.  Ian even understands that choosing Annette will result in both of their destruction, “Because as much as he wanted her, now in the deepest part of his being he knew he did not love her and that she did not love him… So knowing this, knowing they would destroy each other … all he had to do was say no.”[23] At this moment, while the opportunity for evil action is presented externally, the choice which causes the evil action is clearly deliberate.

This is a crucial point in understanding Richards’s moral universe. It is not the case that the tragedies and pain that mark his novels are the result simply of chance or socio-economic structures or a hostile cosmos. While all of those, and other external factors play roles in what happens to his characters throughout his works, those external forces are not at the heart of his artistic vision. The real question of interest is what moral choices his characters make in the face of these external forces. This, in turn, is the central point to consider in judging whether Richards’s novels are bleak or hopeless as some have described them.

Richards always provides an opportunity for the character to make a different moral choice. For instance, before Ian fully betrays Sarah with Annette, he realizes that he is trying to correct his behavior by being kinder to her than usual: “The idea of him having to be kind to Sarah showed already how complicit he had become – and how little it took for him to become complicit. So he was wounded by his own betrayal even before the betrayal happened.”[24] Ian knows that one should not have to work to be kind to someone one loves.  Instead, kindness should proceed naturally from affection. He is aware of how far his betrayal of Sarah has proceeded.  Ian is even aware that he does not love Annette, but is instead responding to her manipulation of the insecurities that he has had since childhood. Feeling self-disgust, Ian resolves to cease seeing Annette.

Here, at this moment of clear moral choice, Richards introduces what appears to be blind chance. Just as Ian is resolving to be true to Sarah and reject Annette, Annette comes to him as he is standing alone regarding the river at night. “How did Annette know where Ian was that night,” the narrator asks.[25] The suggestion is that coming to Ian at exactly that moment is key.  Having made this conscious and deliberate choice, he in full knowledge reverses his decision, offering to drive Annette home. “And somehow Ian knew already, for a fleeting half-second, that once this betrayal happened, his life would be over.”[26]

While Ian is unaware of all of the plotting that led to this moment, or of Annette’s motives, Richards is clear that there is sufficient deliberation in Ian that his actions are free and thus morally culpable. We need not know the extended and ultimate consequences of every (or any) moral act for us not to be responsible for the immediate consequences. It is only necessary that we are aware that what we are about to do will cause harm for us to be morally culpable. In stacking the deck against his characters, as Richards appears to do.  he shows the extreme importance of freedom. Even when operating in a harsh physical environment, limited by poverty and lack of education, at the hands of scheming and manipulative people and subject to chance, his characters still have the latitude to make moral choices of consequence. One is reminded of the pact that Ian, Evan and Harold made when they were just boys, swearing their loyalty to one another and denying the involvement or assistance of the divine. Unmoored from any universal principle they are revealed as falling subject to the same finite necessities that define the tragedies of Lyle Henderson and Alex Chapman.  Having denied the possibility of a universal love upon which they are dependent, their own particular loves become impossible to maintain.

Prior to this, Ian happens to meet Sydney Henderson.  After Ian ridicules Sydney’s oath, Sydney notes, “‘Oh, I have made a pact with God, or at least people say so.  And people say it is an impossible one… But you have made a worse pact—a pact that is virtually impossible to keep, really.  You have made a pact with men … I know this God-business is a terrible responsibility… But this man business—this blood-brother business—it’s like making a pact with a shadow of smoke.”[27]  To maintain a pact to will only one another’s good without any dependence on the divine is virtually impossible to keep for it requires that one recognize the existence of some objective good.  Once this is denied, the foundation of one’s love is hollowed.  Thus, Harold counsels, “all is fair in love and war,” indicating that there is no essential difference between the two, once everything is relative.[28]

In the first part of Crimes then, there is a presentation of the moral responsibility that we bear for our actions, even when there appear to be significant constraints on our freedom. Freedom is portrayed negatively, as the moral choices made often result in harm to others. Towards the mid-point of the novel, however, as the men grow older and see the havoc their lives have wrought, they have the opportunity to make free choices of a more positive nature. Again, these choices are mingled with “accidental” circumstances, such that they might not appear to be anything but by the product of chance. For example, a still grief-stricken Evan, crushed by fate, decides to kill himself by drinking from the same container of antifreeze that had killed his son. Just as he lifts the antifreeze to his lips he hears a car arrive in the driveway outside his shed. It is driven by a priest, who has come to offer him a job repairing the roof of the church. He leaves the antifreeze behind and goes to look at the roof, and, reluctantly, at the priest’s urging, lights a candle for his wife and son. This is the beginning of a change in Evan’s soul.

Ian too turns a corner morally. Ian learns of the plans of the Scandinavian multinational forestry company that has bought the local mill and is buying up the surrounding woodland. He sees that the scale of the development will destroy the forest and the community in which he grew up in and decides to campaign against it. Already despised in town, he becomes even more hated, apparently standing in the way of economic progress. It turns out that he owns a relatively small tract of land that the company needs if they are going to complete their land acquisition and, more importantly, create a road that will enable them to get the lumber through to Quebec, ultimately making the local mill redundant. He refuses to sell, even when the price is raised exponentially. On this point of principle, Ian takes his stands and loses everything. Annette’s dreams of riches are dashed and she spirals downward mentally, demanding a divorce, the expense of which leaves both Ian and Annette with nothing. Despite the justice of his position, Ian becomes further reviled and his son Liam begins to be bullied at school on his account. His beloved store is first boycotted and then torched (by men sent by Harold).

Annette eventually dies miserably, despite heroic attempts to save her by Sarah Robb, the town doctor.  Yet, before she dies, Annette comes to understand and regret how much she has harmed the people she loves.  She thus encourages Liam to reach out to his father, for, as she says, “‘It’s not hard—once you forgive him.’”[29]  Further, while lying sick in bed and being berated and abused by Harold, she confesses her love for “everyone,” and asks Harold for his forgiveness.[30]

While Evan, Ian and even Annette take principled stands, Harold’s path is less clear.  At first, he seems determined to continue the path of betrayal. Having stolen Lonnie’s money the night of Lonnie’s murder, he becomes a sort of second Lonnie, accumulating debtors and taking advantage of the people in town as the economy eventually declines. Then he discovers that back taxes are owing on Ian’s little plot of land and surreptitiously pays the taxes and acquires the land for himself. Harold promptly sells it to the lumber company (for far less than they were offering Ian), betraying Ian and even the environment, the forest, and land upon which they have all depended. Richards tells us that Harold hesitates briefly, knowing that “it was a terrible act of betrayal on his part.”[31] Harold then turns his attention to gaining control of Liam, Ian’s and Annette’s son, who he believes could be his own son.

Harold’s seduction of Liam, however, is a complex matter. Harold certainly has no good will towards Annette and Ian. Yet, his intentions towards Liam are not simply rooted in revenge and anger. He wants a son and appears to develop a genuine affection for Liam. His fantasy is that, following the death of Annette and the unsuitability of Ian, he might adopt Liam as his own. Indeed, Harold’s love for Liam results in his marrying Ethel, Liam’s babysitter and only true friend.. Harold recognizes that Ethel cares for Liam as he does, and he tries to construct a family in which Liam will be safe.  After Annette’s death and prior to the murder investigation, Harold, Ethel, and Liam live together, and this period in Liam’s life appears to have been the happiest.

Liam, like the other seemingly minor characters in Richards’s novels, reveals Richards’s understanding of freedom as love. Liam suffers because of the peculiar circumstances of his home life, is unjustly accused of a something serious and foul, is taken advantage of by Harold, and yet retains his virtue. He is a sort of savant, but is continually dismissed, neglected or overlooked by the people that he loves. Self-absorbed Annette is never an adequate mother and his father’s quixotic campaign against the mill becomes so all-consuming that Liam is nearly an orphan. Yet, little Liam goes around town defending both of his parents, dedicating himself, for example, to protecting the signs that his father has pasted onto lampposts protesting the destruction of the forest. In return for this action, thugs who are working for Harold savagely beat him.

Undeterred, Liam overhears his mother talking about their financial woes in the aftermath of the loss of the store and gets a paper route, determined to help fix things. He labors to save his parents’ marriage, little understanding how impossible a relationship it was from the outset, but clinging to the belief that all things are possible. While Liam develops clear affection for Harold and of course loves Ethel, he stubbornly persists, regardless of his suffering, in his love for his parents. Near the end of the novel, as Annette lies dying in agony, Liam is by her side. “‘Who can love me now’” she asks Liam. ‘“I do’.” “‘Shhh – I do not deserve love.’” “‘Maybe none of us do – and that is why love is so … blessed.’” “‘I am still loved”, she whispered.’”[32]  Liam, who has only sought to love his parents, is able in his mother’s final moments to convince her that the desire for love that inspired, even if unconsciously, all of her actions has been fulfilled.  Richards’s attention to characters that might seem merely peripheral to the major moments in the plot attests to his understanding of the integrity and dignity of all human life, regardless of ability, wealth or status.  In this Richards’s argument is deeply democratic.

With his near suicide being averted by the chance arrival of the priest, Evan’s life takes a moral turn that coincides with an upturn in his fortunes. He stops drinking, attends mass, joins a large construction company and begins seeing Sarah Robb. He now lives a life of charity, helping others with his new wealth. This all comes to a halt when he is arrested for the murder of Lonnie Sullivan. Harold alone knows for certain who killed Lonnie. By now, Harold bears no ill will to Evan, but he cannot bring himself to confess to the crime he committed, as it will mean losing his wife and losing Liam. So, he resolves to let his innocent former friend face conviction in his place.

Harold’s criminality, however, goes even further. Ethel discovers the wrench that he used to kill Lonnie. Incapable of deceit or wrong doing, guided by a simple moral compass, Ethel sets off to turn the wrench over to the police, only to have Harold catch and attack her, forcing Liam to shoot him to save Ethel.

The novel ends with the briefest of epilogues where we find that Evan has been released and married Sarah Robb, Ian has married Harold’s widow Ethel, and Ian and Evan have rekindled their friendship and have gone into business together. They even erect a monument to Harold “our brother.” After years of betrayals, they can forgive one another and reorient themselves in love. Liam, however, leaves and never returns home. While Ethel and Ian search for him, they find only traces. Finally, we are told that he took a berth on a ship to Australia. The last notes of the novel are decidedly melancholic as Ian hears that, “Before Liam left, he told someone he had no family.”[33]


Crimes offers a clearer account of human redemption than some other of David Adams Richards’s novels in that, at least in the cases of Ian and Evan, there is no ambiguity about their transformation. Both men recover their friendship through extreme trial. The power of love to overcome evil is demonstrated in Sarah, Ethel, and Liam. This same love is what redeems Ian and Evan. This love is not simply an emotion; it involves consciously willing the good of another, regardless of self-interest. It is of course the mirror opposite of the self-intent that led them initially to destroy their relationships. That this is no fairy tale is illustrated in the inability of Harold Dew to complete the same moral journey. While Harold develops genuine love for someone else, Liam, and even comes to some sort of belief in God, he is unwilling, in the end, to tell the truth and, instead, is willing to allow innocent Evan to suffer in his place. He rationalizes to himself that if he were to go to prison for his crime, he would be abandoning Liam and Ethel. That he is willing to strike and perhaps even kill Ethel at the end demonstrates the lie that is behind his self-justification.

Just as the tragedies that occur in the novel arise from free acts of will and not accident or necessity, so the redemption that occurs is rooted in human freedom. Richards consistently argues that love is only possible where there is freedom and that only love can overcome evil. The love that he has in mind is sacrificial, denying oneself for the sake of another.

As in his other novels, Richards’s Christian philosophy rests in the background. Yeats’s poem, “Easter 1916,” speaks to the desire for human freedom, one that Yeats understood was universally present.  Achieving that freedom, he suggests, a sacrifice must be made, but, as a result, “a terrible beauty is born.”[34]  While in reference to the Easter Uprising, Yeats is at the same time writing about the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and a promise of a more complete freedom grounded in love, a love that is demonstrated in the nature of God’s sacrifice.  As Yeats writes of those who were executed after the uprising, “We know their dream; enough/To know they dreamed and are dead;/And what if excess of love/Bewildered them till they died?”  Yeats suggests that the freedom and fate of those who have sacrificed themselves for the sake of freedom is now “Heaven’s part.”  In Crimes Against My Brother, Richards indicates that one need not wait until death to know if the sacrifice is sufficient.  In the image of Ian and Evan’s friendship, we understand that we participate in divine grace, not only after death, but also in life.  Our narrator thus says of Evan that, “his life had brought him to faith.”[35]

One might point to the fate of Liam as a significant problem for this argument. After all, he has done nothing but love others and, nonetheless, is put in a situation wherein he must kill Harold, a man he loves and who loves him in turn. The last line of the novel recounts Liam’s final words before departing to Australia: “‘Men! … Those lads … they drink nothing at all—but blood.”[36]  On, the one hand, we can read this as Liam’s condemnation of love and community—after all he has suffered more than any other character in the novel.  Yet, he carries with him The Diary of Anne Frank, signaling that his recognition of the temptation to cruelty, injustice and betrayal suggests to him the necessity of kindness and charity.  Further, we discover that Liam, grew ”up tall and strong and had the most beautiful white teeth and smile.”[37] We know as well that Liam has gone to Australia to join Lyle Henderson, a character from Richards’s novel, Mercy Among the Children. Lyle also knows the effect evil has on those who choose it, y despite this he describes his own life as one of joy.  In this light we might read Liam‘s last statement differently. Instead of pointing to his despair it might be a line of hope, for the blood which men drink, the sacrifice upon which they sustain themselves, could be understood as divine love.

Through the course of the novel, our narrator, a sociology professor who sought to distance himself from the small town life of his childhood and the people he knew there is drawn back.  While he at first seems to draw on the stories of his hometown as test cases for sociological studies amongst his students using, it seems, the lives of the other characters to his own ends and the cynical comments of his students.  Yet, as the story proceeds, even he has charity and compassion for those he had originally ignored. In response to all of the betrayals by others and perhaps speaking of his own betrayals of his family, our narrator, speaking to Sara says, “how many millions of men have thrown away their gifts … One should have mercy. ‘The virtue of mercy is not strained,’ I said, misquoting Shakespeare and liking the misquote.’ ‘I have wrestled with that and found it true,’ Sara told me, in her lilting Miramichi accent that seemed to cut the air with love.”[38]



[1] This article is adapted from Fate and Freedom in the Novels of David Adams Richards (Lexington, 2017) co-authored with Sara MacDonald.

[2] David Adams Richards, God Is: My Search for Faith in a Secular World (Toronto: Doubleday, 2009), 3.

[3] When an interviewer suggests that many contemporary writers steer clear from positive portrayals of Christianity because it is considered “unrespectable,” Richards’s good-humoredly responds, “That’s true. I am unrespectable.” IFOA, “In Conversation with David Adams Richards.”

International Festival of Authors, Filmed [02/2016]. YouTube Video, 47:09. Posted [02/2016].

[4] David Adams Richards, God Is, 166.

[5] Kathleen Scherf, “David Adams Richards: ‘He Must be a Canadian Regionalist,’” in Studies in Canadian Literature 15:1 (1990), 3.

[6] David Adams Richards: God Is, 36-7.

[7] Ibid., 37.

[8] Scherf, “David Adams Richards: ‘He Must be a Social Realist Regionalist;’” Robertson Ellison, “Motivations of Great Duration (Interview with New Brunswick writer, David Adams Richards), New Maritimes 14:5 (May/June 1996): 20.  See also R. M. Vaughn, “ An Instinct for Life: David Adams Richards Discovered his own Voice by Making his own Mistakes,” accessed 11 February 2017,

[9] Others have noted in passing Augustinian elements of, for example, Richards’s account of redemption. See, Jack Robinson, “Re-Reading David Adams Richards: Ironies of Allegory in Mercy among the Children” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 32, Number 2 (2011).

[10] For the history of the debate around the nature of Augustine’s Platonism, see R.D. Crouse, “Paucis mutatis verbis: St. Augustine’s Platonism,” in Augustine and his Critics, ed. R.J. Dodaro and G.P. Lawless (London and New York: Routledge, 1999) 37-50.

[11] Ibid., 72.

[12] For example see, Alex Good, “The Ballad of a Brainy Fool and a Foolish Man of Brawn,” Review of The Lost Highway, by David Adams Richards, Toronto Star, 25 November 2007;  Review of Hope in a Desperate Hour, by David Adams Richards, MacLeans (June 1996), 54; Alex Varty, Review of The Friends of Meager Fortune, The Georgia Straight, Nov. 9, 2006, Accessed 24 September 2016,

[13] UNB Tube “Big Thinkers: David Adams Richards,” Filmed: 21 June 2011, You Tube Video, Duration: 41:16, Posted: 21 June 2011,

[14] See Ovid, Metamorphoses, 9, 404.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 18.

[17] This is how Augustine describes the thrill he experienced in the seemingly trivial theft of a neighbor’s pears when he was an adolescent. Augustine, Confessions, II, iv-viii.

[18] Richards, Crimes Against My Brother, 21.

[19] Ibid., 73.

[20] Ibid., 81.

[21] Ibid., 89.

[22] Ibid., 83.

[23] Ibid., 124.

[24] Richards, Crimes Against My Brother, 123.

[25] Ibid., 124.

[26] Ibid., 126.

[27] Ibid., 40.

[28] Ibid., 36, 112.

[29] Ibid., 348.

[30] Ibid., 370.

[31] Ibid., 256.

[32] Ibid., 367.

[33] Ibid, 399.

[34] William Butler Yeats, “Easter 1816,” The Poetry Foundation, accessed 13 February 2017,

[35] Ibid., 363.

[36] Ibid., 400.

[37] Ibid., 400.

[38] Ibid., 104.


Our review of this book is available here.

Also see Gary Throne’s “Augustine: Memory as Sacrament,” Paulette Kidder’s review of “Fate and Freedom in the Novels of David Adams Richards,” Sara MacDonald’s review of “Mary Cyr,” Andrew Moore’s “Doctor Faustus: On Power and Human Freedom,” Catherine Craig’s “Of Infinite Variety: The Promise of Comedy in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra,” and Mary Craig’s “On the Diamond and in the Pews: The Push to Legalize Sunday Baseball.”

Barry CraigBarry Craig

Barry Craig

Barry Craig is Principal at Huron University College in Canada. He is author of several books, including Apostle to the Wilderness: Bishop John Medley and the Evolution of the Anglican Church (Fairleigh Dickinson, 2005); and co-author with Sara MacDonald, Recovering Hegel from the Critique of Leo Strauss (Lexington Books, 2014); Recollecting Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of Mark Helprin (Lexington Books, 2015); and Fate and Freedom in the Novels of David Adams Richards (Lexington Books, 2017).

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