by Steven Heighton

Published by Knopf Canada

402 pages, 2005

Buy it online




After Effects

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen


In 1872 the Polaris set out with 36 men, women and children aboard in an effort to plant the American flag at the North Pole. Instead, off the coast of Ellesmere Island, in stormy conditions, half of the party found themselves planted on an ice floe watching the Polaris wallowing away, never to return. It was mid-October. On April 30th they were rescued by the incredulous captain of a passing steamer. Their six months' ordeal is the history authour Steven Heighton uses to build his tale of betrayal, bravery and unrequited love.

Their survival, though fact, is the stuff of fiction. How could they have survived such conditions? Ravaging polar bears, the break-up of their ice floe home and loss of their tents, the willful destruction of their whale boat, the mutiny among the crew, attempted rape, attempted murder, theft of rations, bone blasting winter storms, starvation and madness all whirled around the beleaguered crew, as mismatched as soup and sorbet. Unquestionably they could never have survived without the Inuit guides and interpreters who also found themselves on the floe. Tukulito, or Hannah as she was called by the crew and her husband, Ebierling, or Joe, along with Hans Christian and his wife were the group's real saviours. With their skills in hunting and Arctic survival, they calmly set about providing food and shelter. With the rest of the party including Germans, British, Swedish, Danish and American it's no wonder that camps were quickly formed and authority challenged. It was up to Tyson, the senior officer, to keep everything under control. How well he did that is left up to the reader, as well as is Kruger's role during these harrowing months.

But what is not left open to interpretation is the fact that Kruger, Hannah and her patrons, the Budingtons, have been betrayed by Lieutenant Tyson. Three years after their miraculous escape and rescue, he has published a popular account of their survival in which he painted Kruger as the villain, destroyed the reputation of Captain Budington and criticized Hannah. He is now profiting from his work by giving talks and presentations around the country. Kruger, who was a minor hero upon his return to America, has now lost his job, his fiancé, his status and his reasons for living. He even attempts an ineffectual suicide but protagonists of novels are not permitted to die in the first few chapters. During his life he will starve and suffer many more times, face danger and theft, question his potential for survival, encounter enemies and even find requited love as a substitute for the doomed and always proper Hannah. He will also accost the man who destroyed his life, Tyson.

He is an unlikely hero. Gentle, plodding, vacillating, obsessive and without humor, he is more comfortable playing with children than communicating with adults. Somehow he survives, again and again. He grows on you. You find yourself wanting him to finally find some joy. Then when he does find it with a wife and family in Mexico, we get short shrift. We only learn of it once it has been snatched away from him.

Heighton is a superb and gifted writer. His short story collections, poetry and fiction have been published in several countries and nominated for several awards including the Governor General's award, the Trillium Award, the Journey Prize and the WH Smith Award. With Afterlands he may receive more than a nomination. Don't plan on a quick read. You are definitely going to slow down to ponder many of the pithy phrases you come across. Sentences like these, for example: "Loss was the world's final law," "Suicide is one of the few ways for a ruined immigrant to go home," and "He has often wondered what has caused more death and pain through history: the brutish lack of any ideas, or the ideas themselves."

An intriguing blend of fact and fiction set in the Arctic, America and Mexico, Afterlands isn't a book you will soon forget. | January 2006


Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.