In 1872, the USS Polaris sailed for the Arctic on a mission to hoist the U.S. flag at the North Pole. But the expedition was a failure, and half of the party – nineteen men, women and children of different nationalities–were cast adrift on an ice floe off the coast of Ellesmere Island, where they endured six desperate months of starvation, bloodshed and other horrors. Afterlands, a profoundly moving and gripping book, takes characters drawn from history and transforms their experiences into an absorbing tale of unrequited love, unsettled scores and the high cost of loyalty.
The novel begins in 1876, when three of the survivors – George Tyson, Tukulito and Roland Kruger–are uneasily reunited four years after they were rescued from the ice. They are still inextricably connected by their ordeal–and Tyson has recently published an account of their shattering experiences which casts Kruger as a spy and villain, and disgraces Tukulito as well.
What happened on the ice, as Afterlands explores, was far more complex. The heart of the book moves between Tyson’s diaries and a riveting narrative of Arctic survival. From the moment they are set adrift, and even before, Kruger and Tyson seem destined to clash: Kruger is an intelligent individualist, an outsider who refuses to be loyal to any one country; Tyson, meanwhile, is a flawed but sometimes brilliant leader, a man who needs to constantly be testing himself against the world. Brave but also insecure, he is unable to stop the German contingent of his party from banding together under their national flag in an armed near-mutiny on the drifting ice.
The third key character in this book, Tukulito, was the Arctic’s first professional interpreter. Known also as Hannah, she moves between two worlds: expert at gutting a seal, she has also had tea with Queen Victoria. Her different roles – translator, mother, mender, marksman – keep the party from disaster, as suspicion and violence increase. And the quiet, impossible passion Kruger feels for her almost redeems their lives in a frozen hell.
But Afterlands is also a novel about what follows the life-changing event: the long shadow it casts, as well as the conflicting stories that compete to become historical record. Back in the world, the protagonists will experience various degrees of tragedy. Tukulito’s is perhaps the most personal, while Tyson, who sought only to gain the world’s esteem, is disgraced by later failure. Kruger, meanwhile, attempts to disappear into Mexico, again seeking a place beyond “the colonels of the world” – but he finds himself, perhaps inevitably, drawn once more into the unending conflicts between nations, between peoples.
This novel is a triumph of storytelling from one of Canada’s most acclaimed writers. Gripping and beautiful, it is a scintillating exploration of the extremes of human experience. Afterlands brilliantly examines both a devastating encounter with the natural world and the unrelenting demands of the human heart.
From the Hardcover edition.
The Polaris expedition remains a minor footnote in the annals of Arctic exploration, but Heighton has used it to create a novel of big ideas and beautiful language. It can't have been easy for a poet to exercise restraint in a 400-page book set in the Arctic (so many ways to describe white!), but he picks his moments well, offering quiet bits of dazzle in perfect moderation. The crewmen sleeping head-to-foot are "dueling pistols in a lined case." The Inuit woman Hannah, the object of both Tyson and Kruger's unrequited affections, speaks English well but haltingly, "each word placed as carefully as a foot along a seacliff path."