Writing World: The Last Beothuk

Writing World: The Last Beothuk

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Newfoundland author Gary Collins crafts a thrilling tale of defiant survival and revenge with his 12th published work The Last Beothuk

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Award winning Newfoundland author Gary Collins has always endeavoured to listen for the rustle in the woods. This is a phrase he repeats several times during a candid sitdown at his log cabin in central Newfoundland.

“I’ve always been the type to listen for the rustle in the woods. There’s always a rustle in the woods, you’ve just got to listen,” Collins says. “I always wonder who went before me.”

With this his 12th published work, Collins has certainly found his footing as one of this island’s preeminent storytellers. His latest, and perhaps his most immersive work, titled The Last Beothuk, is a fictional tale inspired by true events, one which challenges the notion that Shanawdithit was the last living Beothuk Indian.

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Santu’s tale

Collins’ research led him to renowned anthropologist Frank Speck, who specialized in North American Coastal Indians and was one of the more prominent ethnographers of his time.

In 1910 Speck interviewed an elderly woman, Santu and her son in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The son could speak Mi’kmaq and English and told Speck that his mother was born in The Great Red Pond in Newfoundland, that her mother was a Mi’kmaq and that her father was named Kop, a Beothuk.

This research would suggest that Shanawdithit was post-dated by roughly 75 years. Santu always told her son his father was the last Beothuk, that the rest of his race had been ‘killed off’ by European settlers.

“I’m not trying to change Newfoundland history, but this is what my research found, this is what I wrote and you can read the book and make up your own mind,” Collins says, impassioned.

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Survival & Revenge

Collins used Kop as the genesis for The Last Beothuk, placing him at the center of age-old atrocities and documented abuses to craft a dark, thrilling and achingly human narrative of survival and revenge.

“It’s recorded of the Beothuk man and his emaciated daughter stumbling out of the woods and onto the beach, with their hands cupped in the worldwide recognition of help,” Collins explains. “The two white European trappers shot the two of them. They came to the village and bragged about it, someone didn’t like it and they were charged, went to court and it was determined that they were ‘only defending themselves against savages.’ I take Kop and built it around this incident.

“It reads like a novel,” he adds. “I can’t do documentation – I’m too nosy. I have to know the things that happened. After saying that, the people who do those documentations, god love em’, that’s where I get my information.”

Collins has extensively researched the Beothuk and Mi’kmaq for decades. His own personal history as a hunter allowed him to follow the long covered tracks of these men and women that came before us, and to re-imagine their story in vivid detail.

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“I’ve been a hunter since I was 13 years old. I know hunting very well. I tried to figure out how they would do it,” he says. “It’s a known fact that they killed polar bears. You don’t just go screaming and yelling, there’s got to be stealth, there’s got to be common sense, and there’s got to be a fearless endeavour to do it. You’ve got to know what you’re doing.” 

Attention to detail, and a rare ability to immerse his reader in a careful constructed space and time has become a calling card of sorts for Collins. He allowed Kop to help him along the journey, with the reader all the better for it.

“From start to finish, and this is my 12th book, I knew Kop would take me on a trip,” he says profoundly. “I’m not one of those readers who gets some epiphany. I spend a lot of time in a log cabin with a fireplace outside, moonlit nights, sunsets and all that stuff, but I’m not one who gets some epiphany one day where words flew out of me just like a river from a pond. That’s not how it happens for me. I had the idea, I saw Kop in this really old book and I just worked at it. I worked along the trail and followed Kop wherever he took me.”

An Open Mind

Collins reaffirms his belief that he is not out to create a firestorm surrounding long-believed preconceptions of Newfoundland history. Rather, as most of us should avail to do, Collins wishes for his reader to adapt an open mind and consider the possibilities.

“I’m always asked ‘what would you want the reader to take from this?’ I’m not out to try to change Newfoundland history, but I would like for the reader to read this and open their mind and think for a minute,” he says. “Here’s this guy, well proven, a documented person, who post-dated Shanawdithit. I would hope that it’s described in such a way that it is believable and creates a serious doubt as to whether or not Shanawdithit  was the last Beothuk, or was it Kop or maybe it was somebody else … There are people who doubt everything, and that doesn’t bother me. People did not believe the Vikings were here until 1961 and that’s just a speck in history. My point is, who knows that there’s not something left yet to be discovered about the Beothuk Indians.”

The Last Beothuk and the rest of Collins’ collective works are available through Flanker Press wherever local books are sold.

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Dillon Collins is a writer based out of St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador. Multi-time MusicNL nominee for Media Person of the Year. Lover of heavy metal, hoppy beverages and the loveable canine.

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