Action, intrigue, tragedy in 'The Beothuck Expedition’

Darrell Squires
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Just released by Breakwater Books, “The Beothuk Expedition” by Derek Yetman is an impressive historical novel based on John Cartwright’s ill-fated expedition to Newfoundland in search of the Beothuk.

The cover of the book


I say impressive because Yetman’s approach is to follow history closely while taking a minimum of creative license. Yet, his story is as exciting and action-filled as any tale of high adventure by, say, Bernard Cornwell or Patrick O’Brian or Julian Stockwin — with whom Yetman compares favourably. In fact, the language, tone, and style of Yetman’s novel are notably seasoned and assured.

On Aug. 24, 1768, in this “outpost of empire,” Lt. John Cartwright and 13 others began the first European exploration of the Exploits River.

Cartwright was under instructions from Gov. Hugh Palliser to establish friendly relations with the Beothuk, who were locked in a cycle of theft and retribution with trappers and fishermen.

How and why the expedition was such a failure is the focus of Yetman’s narrative, and it chronicles such atrocities as the shooting death of a young Beothuk woman by furriers, and the abduction of her male child.

The novel is narrated from multiple viewpoints, but not confusingly so; in fact, this technique illuminates the action and characters’ motives; particularly those of the main narrator is Newfoundland-born Jonah Squibb.

Yetman writes very well, and his grasp of history and his appreciation for contemporary speech comes through. And he is able to navigate the differences in voice between his different protagonists (and antagonists) while picking up on the nuances of period speech.

Yetman writes very well, and his grasp of history and his appreciation for contemporary speech comes through.

Yetman’s understanding of 18th-century ocean vessels and naval warfare is also impressive; it needs to be since Yetman’s novel is also ambitious enough that it explores the war of attrition between the English and French for control over settlement and the fishery in Newfoundland.

Dealing as it does with the eradication of a people, discussion of European incursion into the territory of the Beothuk and the state of war that subsequently came of it often tends to be emotional. To Yetman’s added credit, “The Beothuk Expedition” avoids sentimentality, offering instead an expert melding of history and action with a moving account of Newfoundland history’s more tragic chapters.

Ask for it at your public library.

Darrell Squires is assistant manager of Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries, West Newfoundland-Labrador division. You can contact him at: or by phone at 634-7333. His column appears every other week.


Geographic location: Newfoundland, Exploits River

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