Monday, May 28, 2007

Afterlands Review

Afterlands by Steven Heighton

This novel is difficult to summarize: based on a real event, it features Roland Kruger, a survivor of a botched Arctic expedition. In 1872 the USS Polaris foundered, and nineteen crewmen and Inuit men, women and children were stranded on an ice floe for nearly six months. Miraculously, every one of them survived, to be rescued by Newfoundland fishermen when they had drifted far enough south. Upon publication of their commanding officer Captain Tyson's memoir of this feat of endurance, Kruger appears to disadvantage.

Heighton reimagines Kruger's role and the dynamics of survival in this story. He throws in an unrequited love affair between Kruger and the Inuit woman Tukulito, and then follows each into their lives after the rescue - hence the title. This novel really works in its first half. The descriptions of the Arctic and of the relationships between men of different nationalities and social stratum are sharp and visceral. The clash of Inuit and American cultures is evident, especially in the character of Tukulito, or as they call her, Hannah. The exigencies of survival make for compelling reading, culminating in the shockingly memorable scene in which the castaways must hold their one boat fast on the ice floe during a violent storm lasting all night. They are driven off their feet and lashed by frigid waves and icy winds, but somehow keep hold of the boat and of their place upon the ever shrinking floe. This book is worth reading for that scene alone. I found, however, that in the second half of the book my interest flagged. It follows Kruger, Hannah and Capt. Tyson into the years after their ordeal. Tyson is compelled to return to the Arctic again and again. Hannah, her husband and child move to New England, where she attempts to live like a respectable Christian; her husband joins endless expeditions and is always going north. Kruger becomes a wanderer, heading to Mexico where he spends years, drifting and eventually settling down with wife and children. When his new family dies of cholera he begins wandering once more. He is pressed into service in a local civil war, people dying all around him, and when he finally decides to head north to Hannah, it is without the knowledge that she and her daughter have both succumbed to TB.

I understand Heighton's interest in pursuing the idea of what happens to a person after a great ordeal, but I felt like the two halves of the book were disconnected. It seemed like they were two distinct stories which happened to be about the same person. Life can run in discrete chapters as well as books can; however, I was tring to focus on both Kruger's Arctic ordeal and his life in Mexico equally and it was discombobulating. What was most important? I wasn't quite sure. Both parts were appealing but there were just too many entire lives packed in. I needed more colour, more density; there were so many moments telegraphed that needed resolution. The story would have been well served by some Victorian length and breadth!

I read it with fascination, though. I always wonder how a person ends up where they do, and Heighton does an admirable job of illuminating this question. It is an absorbing, if slightly fractured, read.


  1. This sounds really interesting. Thanks for the review!

  2. What a harrowing story! Amazing that all of them survived.

  3. Yes, the survival was rather amazing. I'm now on to another Arctic story that I'll be talking about soon. I love survival stories!


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