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Fiction Sea Stories


by (author) Steven Heighton

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Aug 2006
Sea Stories, 21st Century, Historical
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2006
    List Price

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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.

About the author

Contributor Notes

STEVEN HEIGHTON was the author of the novel Afterlands, which was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice along with a best book of the year selection in ten publications in Canada, the US, and the UK; and has been optioned for film. He is also the author of The Shadow Boxer, a Canadian bestseller and a Publishers Weekly Book of the Year. His work has been translated into ten languages, and his poems and stories have appeared in the London Review of Books, Poetry, Tin House, The Walrus, Europe, Agni, Poetry London, Brick, Best English Stories, and many others. Heighton has won several awards and has been nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Trillium Award, and Britain’s W.H. Smith Award. He died in 2022.

Excerpt: Afterlands (by (author) Steven Heighton)


But what thinks Lazarus? Can he warm his blue hands by holding them up to the grand northern lights? Would not Lazarus rather be in Sumatra than here? Would he not far rather lay him down lengthwise along the line of the equator . . . go down to the fiery pit itself, in order to keep out this frost?
–Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Wanted to shadow the three of you, all scattered
by the one storm. Tracked you (or some sediment,
cinder of you) to churchyards along the seaboard
near Mystic, or indio graveyards above the gaunt
gorges of Sinaloa – a search party of one, a mere
century-plus late. No, more – with every resource
I searched, clue traced, a shade more of your oblivious
withdrawal, waning to ash, as I scrawled my course
(it seemed) ever nearer, through tiered detritus
downward, by the spadeful, a volunteer
unwilling to leave the warlike scene –
recovering just fragments, fallout, DNA.

–Dawson City, Yukon, September 2001

Hartford, Connecticut, September 1876

An Esquimau playing Mendelssohn is a tremendous novelty. The local gentry fill the seats of the Main Street Memorial Hall, whiskery gentlemen in frock coats and wing collars, the ladies in gowns and layer-cake hats trimmed with ribbon and mock flora. Their elegant figures are shored up by trusses or corsets – synthetic exoskeletons fortified with whalebone. If any members of this audience make a connection between their own underclothes and the presence onstage of a child from the Arctic whaling grounds, they don’t let on. They are effusive in their praise of the little Esquimau. She is clearly a prodigy. She is only ten years of age! She has been playing the piano for only three years! How charming she looks in her cream cotton dress with the puffed sleeves, the ends of her braids joined at the small of her back with a red ribbon bow. As they whisper and nod, a lush welling of self-appreciation and security warms their chests.

In fact, Punnie is not playing as well as she did when rehearsing for the recital with her teacher, Mr Chusley, who will be performing after her and before the chief attraction, a master recitalist from Leipzig who is said to have known Mendelssohn personally. This lean and tousled master, seated severely in the front row, will be aware that the girl has committed a few slips. What he doesn’t know is that her playing also lacks its usual earnest, beguiling zest. Punnie is dizzy and has to concentrate to suppress the dry scraping cough that has been gaining on her since April. Throughout the summer holiday she has been practising, as much as four hours a day. There is something unnerving, quietly violent, in her discipline. She’s the sort of only child who lives for the endorsement of adults. More and more these days she coughs while she rehearses. She and her parents, Tukulito and Ebierbing – Hannah and Joe is how they are known to Americans – came down from the Arctic after the rescue over three years ago, but the poor child still carries the Far North in her lungs. So Mr Chusley puts it. He even urges her to practise less.

Actually Punnie’s cough began not in the Arctic but after their journey south.

Stiff in the aisle seat of a middle row, Tukulito sees that her daughter is struggling, but the audience is so caught up in the spectacle of this oddly pallid Esquimau child playing one of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words – op. 30, no. 1 in E flat – that they don’t notice. Tukulito’s face has the waxen stillness of somebody watching the last stages of a shipwreck, trying to contain her alarm – a stillness that could be mistaken for calm. This is her usual expression. Only her eyes, sharp with practical understanding and quick sympathy, lend life to her face; enough life for a dozen faces.

In fact, the child is something of a prodigy. Mr Chusley, a soft little man with sombre brown eyes, rumpled clothes and clove-scented breath (and, unluckily for his dreams, stumpy hands and fingers), has said that he foresees fine fine things for the girl. Very fine indeed. And Tukulito grasps that this is not a man given to flattery. A stutterer, he keeps his utterances short. I’ve never yet tutored a child possessed of such a, such a faculty of silent concentration. Your Punnie seems to me utterly undistractable. Chusley does not then detour into ethnological conjecture, like some of the well-meaning Groton neighbours, on whether this is a specialized trait–a result of the savage’s need for vigilance by the seal’s breathing hole, or his wife’s Oriental patience, acquired in the igloo waiting with the children for her mate’s return. . . . For some years the life of the Esquimaux has gripped the romantic imagination. They’ve become a staple of polar adventure novels, which emphasize their fortitude, their loyalty, their stealth, their rare inscrutable lapses into cunning and violence. In the 1860s the fascination with Esquimaux even hatched a short-lived fad for duelling with bone harpoons. The Polaris debacle and Lieutenant Tyson’s subsequent drift on the ice with eighteen other castaways have made them even more popular; Tukulito’s husband Ebierbing was in some ways the hero of Tyson’s published account of the drift (as Second Mate Kruger was its villain), and this Esquimau family have been celebrities since settling in the port town of Groton, Connecticut.

Tukulito still thinks about Mr Kruger but has not heard from him in some time.

The child is small for her age, no grand piano ever looked huger. She will start a piece straight-backed on the bench but as she plays she will tip gradually forward so that by the last bar her face is just above the keys. (Mr Chusley has tried to correct this.) Her playing is stronger now, op. 67, no. 5 in B minor, “The Shepherd’s Complaint.” Those firm-pacing, stately notes in the minor until, just as the ear is tiring of the solemnity, the tune resolves into major.

Editorial Reviews

A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice

A Globe & Mail, National Post, Vancouver Sun, Ottawa Citizen, Vancouver Province and The Social Best Book of 2005
“A magnificent novel about the wreckage of history–both the history that happens to us and the versions of it we create . . . A sophisticated, densely layered fictional exploration of survival, love, betrayal and the personal cost of history . . . Heighton is an experienced adventurer in literary form . . . a sense of boldness and risk-taking infuses Afterlands . . . A novel of big ideas and beautiful language.”
The New York Times Book Review
“A triumph of a novel . . . A masterful blend of real-life historical account and modern storytelling . . . To try to contain this savage, beautiful tale into a few paragraphs is to do it an injustice. It is to be savoured . . . Steven Heighton has pulled off a masterpiece.”
Daily Express (UK)
“Unforgettable . . . This is a big, wide, deep book . . . an intensely felt fiction . . . . Like Conrad, and unlike any other poet-novelist in this country–even Ondaatje–Heighton is shockingly real and character-driven even when he’s being his most mannered.”
The Globe & Mail
“Skillfully constructed, beautifully written, told with a detachment that will put the reader in mind of Graham Greene, Afterlands is a superior example of a rare breed: the literary adventure story.”
–The Washington Post
Afterlands is up there with the best work in the genre. . . This is gripping stuff . . . Heighton is a superb stylist, in complete control of the language.”
National Post
“Superb . . .One of the most gripping stories of the North to be found . . . There’s nail-biting adventure, unforgettable character studies, lessons about the resurgence of nationalism in today’s post-9/11 world. . . One of this year’s top novels . . . A story that deserves to be told and retold.”
Ottawa Citizen

“A wonderful, whiteout epic that unpicks the triumph and tragedy of the human spirit.”

“Compelling, vividly imagined, and written in rich and precise prose . . . The characters are wonderfully drawn: complex, convincing, yet unfathomable. But the real force of the book comes from the currents of history – of young nations rising and ancient civilizations ebbing–that run just below the surface of the story.”
Financial Times (UK)

“Heighton churns history with a writerly imagination . . . [A] terrific go at the Great Arctic Novel.”
TIME (Canada)
“A major work by any standards, uniting beautiful writing, unforgettable characters, and profound ideas on the lessons afforded by history.”
Books in Canada
“Heighton is a wordsmith and sentence-sculptor of the old school . . . [In Afterlands] he strikes a match between form and content so apt that the author becomes, in the best of ways, invisible. . . It takes a rare combination of discipline and imagination to do such stories [as this] full justice, and Afterlands proves beyond any doubt that Heighton has got it.”
The Gazette (Montreal)
“Compulsively readable, in the tradition of so many shipwreck stories, from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.
Winnipeg Free Press
“The floe on which Heighton’s multi-ethnic characters are trapped serves not only as a tightly focused stage for the novel’s action, but also as a microcosm of the changing face of society and international relations at the time . . . [Heighton writes] lucidly, intelligently, and with humour . . . Afterlands will satisfy readers expecting the dreaded Gothic Romance at the same time as it wryly subverts the genre.”
Calgary Herald
“A quintessentially Canadian book . . .Gripping reading.”
Toronto Star

“Vivid in its limning of character and its evocation of extreme conditions. . . .With no sign of strain [Heighton] brings far-flung settings within the remit of a single, thematically-unified work. He makes every sentence count . . . [and his cast] leaps out of history in a way that only the best-rendered characters can.
The Vancouver Sun
“Heighton does a terrific job of recreating this epic adventure which has no parallel in Arctic history.”
Edmonton Journal
“Ambitious . . . sophisticated . . . a magnificent novel.”
International Herald-Tribune
"Afterlands is a superb work of the imagination — a blend of fact and fiction that is handled with grace and mastery. The shifting landscape of the narrative is perfectly paralleled by the shifting Arctic landscape and the wildly changing fate of the hapless souls trapped on the ice floe. This is Heighton at his best."
—Helen Humphreys, bestselling author of The Lost Garden
"Afterlands is a sprawling adventure story, part epic of Arctic endurance, part Mex-western, a Lost in the Barrens meets The Magnificent Seven kind of book, with an unrequited love affair between a German seaman and an Inuit matron to add passion to an already passionate book. At the heart of Afterlands is an ambiguous hero, the disgraced German sailor Roland Kruger whose true-life bravery has inspired Heighton to create a complex, brooding, rebellious and mysteriously gentle central character. Afterlands is full of unforgettably dramatic moments: the tubercular Inuit girl Punie performing Mendelssohn in a New England concert hall, a gorgeous bear-bull fight in a Mexican plaza, and the long night when the men anchor their remaining whaleboat with their own bodies as the ice-floe sinks and frigid waves dash over them."
—Douglas Glover, Governor General-winning author of Elle: A Novel

Praise for Steven Heighton:
"Steven Heighton is one of the finest writers in this country."
—Barbara Gowdy, author of The Romantic
"One of the best writers of his generation, maybe the best."
—Al Purdy

"He is like a young Ondaatje . . . a superb craftsman at ease in foreign places and distant times."
The Globe and Mail

"Heighton is a heavyweight . . . a master of realist narrative. The result is a genuine, hard-fought lyrical beauty that transcends fashion."
The Vancouver Sun

"A bravura performance, intense and poetic . . . The Shadow Boxer fizzes with life and energy, and has a swaggering, larger-than-life quality."
Independent on Sunday (UK)

"Fluid, rhythmical, full of force and grace, his sentences compel you to keep reading."
—Wayne Johnston

“Heighton is one of our most ambitious and prodigiously talented writers. . . . For those who roll their eyes at the prospect of another historical novel from a young CanLit star, rest assured that Heighton’s purpose here is not to dazzle with research, but rather to find characters at the boundary points in history, those rare moments when the tectonic plates of different cultures grind against one another and threaten destruction.”
Quill & Quire

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