Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Fiction Epistolary

Henderson's Spear

by (author) Ronald Wright

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Aug 2002
Epistolary, Literary, Historical
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2002
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


In the tradition of Melville and Stevenson, a superb storyteller -- winner of the David Higham Prize for Fiction -- brings literary art of great range and beauty to a South Seas epic. Two tales of passion and intrigue, from the 1890s and the 1990s, reach around the world from Canada, England and West Africa to converge in the Polynesian islands.

The story opens as a letter from Olivia, a Canadian filmmaker who writes from a Tahitian jail to the daughter she gave up for adoption at sixteen. Olivia's search for her own father, an airman missing since the Korean War, has brought her to the South Seas and landed her in prison on a trumped-up murder charge. The other main strand of the novel -- based on fact -- is told in the secret diaries of Frank to have been Jack the Ripper. Frank is driven to write down what he knows when he begins to suspect there are people who wish him out of the way.

As she fights to get out of jail, Olivia recalls her own childhood in the English house where Henderson once lived. There, while packing up the family home after her mother's death, she finds Henderson's old papers and learns of links between herself and him that she had never known, links that explain her mother's behaviour and her father's disappearance.

Written with a deep understanding of the landscape and culture of the South Sea islands, Henderson's Spear is at once a moving study of loss -- of a parent, a child, a past -- and an exploration of historical forces that nearly extinguished a people and still threaten us today. Ronald Wright's deft touch and luminous prose make this rich, powerful novel utterly compelling.

About the author

RONALD WRIGHT is an award-winning historian, essayist, and the author of ten books of fiction and nonfiction published in sixteen languages and more than forty countries. His 2004 CBC Massey Lectures, A Short History of Progress, was a #1 national bestseller, won the Libris Award for Nonfiction Book of the Year, and was the basis for the Martin Scorsese–produced documentary Surviving Progress. His other bestselling nonfiction books include the BC Book Prize–winning history What Is America?; Stolen Continents, which won the Gordon Montador Award; and Among the Maya. His first novel, A Scientific Romance, won the 1997 David Higham Prize for Fiction and was a Globe and Mail, Sunday Times, and New York Times book of the year. Wright contributes criticism to the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other publications. He lives in British Columbia.

Ronald Wright's profile page

Excerpt: Henderson's Spear (by (author) Ronald Wright)



Women’s Prison, Arue. April, 1990

A note is all I have from you. I think of it as yours despite the formal stationery and wary tone: We have recently been contacted by a young lady whose particulars appear to match your own. It found me here just before Christmas -- a few weeks after my arrest.

I’d left my name with the contact agency several years ago, long enough to grow discouraged and then push discouragement to the back of my mind. So your note was a shock, though I’d invited it -- a shock followed by relief and joy. You were alive! You wanted us to find each other. You weren’t hiding, weren’t exacting a sullen revenge that might last until I died.

Particulars. They mean dates, ages, numbers on certificates. These aren’t always reliable in our family, as I shall tell. But there can be no mistake; only your particulars could possibly “appear” to match my own. This young lady is you. And this older one is me, who gave you life at sixteen, and gave you away.

• • •

Who are you now? And how and what and where? I’m brimming with questions. I’m ready for the best, the worst, the in-between. Like most of us you’re probably in between. And twenty-two is so damn young, but for the first time in your life you’re feeling old. You’re thinking of endings and beginnings, which is why you’ve begun to look for me. But maybe you haven’t yet made up your mind you’ll even see me. So I’ll go first: Olivia Wyvern, Cell 15. Your mother.

There’s this tiresome obstacle to our reunion: I’m imprisoned on the far side of the world (assuming you’re still in Britain). It’s not a bad jail. How many have palm trees in the yard, French bread, an ocean view? And a good friend is moving heaven and earth to get me out of it. My government -- I’m a Canadian now -- is sympathetic. The consul here is on my side. Ottawa is asking questions about the charge, the so-called evidence. People are beginning to see that I’ve been framed.

It can’t be easy finding your mother after all these years, only to learn she stands accused of murder -- well, for complice, which means “accessory.” But truly there was no murder. Or if there was it had nothing to do with me. I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

She would say that, wouldn’t she? Will you allow me the presumption of innocence, which is more than I’ve had from the Napoleonic Code? (Tahiti’s a French colony.) I am not guilty. But I do plead guilty to a charge concerning you: I threw away the life we might have lived together. No law sets penalties for that; it was a crime of the will and the heart. Both you the innocent and I the guilty have served over twenty years for it.

• • •

The people in London who matched our particulars have also offered advice on how to proceed. Phone calls out of the blue are not recommended. Start with a letter, they say -- enclose photos, snippets of hair, take your time. Phone calls and meetings will come later. Phoning is difficult here, anyway, and a meeting out of the question. But I have plenty of time. So this is a long letter to prepare you for the next step, if and when.

Already I’ve a lot to thank you for. Without your note I might still be stewing in the bath of outrage, fear, and hate in which I fell at my arrest. You’ve kept me busy writing this since January. They let me spend four hours a day in the library. The light’s good in the morning, a breeze comes through the bars, mynah birds squabble in the palms, and it’s the only room without a reek of sewer. This place is so French: good food, bad drains. The washbasin in my cell is a mixed blessing -- no plug or trap to keep down smells and cockroaches. Until Pua showed me the remedy (chewing gum and a coin), I thought I might be gassed in my sleep or nibbled raw. Tahitian roaches are as big as mice and they go for the dead skin on your feet.

I don’t mean to make too much of these discomforts. My hotel in Papeete was much the same, at ninety dollars a night. In French Polynesia they know how to let off nuclear weapons but they’ve never grasped the rudiments of plumbing.

I know I should start with I love you. But how can I say that without it ringing false, the sudden intimacy of salesmen and seducers? We’re strangers, you and I, despite our blood. I don’t even know your name. And I may as well tell you straight that I’ve never been very good at love, though I am working on it. Often I think love stalled in me the day you went away.

So this won’t be that kind of letter. What I can give you, for now, is my story. And in return I hope someday you’ll give me yours. I’ll try to stick to the point, though it doesn’t come easily -- my mind’s a sackful of cats and they’re all clawing their way out at once. Be patient while I let them go in an order that makes sense, at least to me. Mine isn’t the usual tale of a girlish mistake with a pimply boy in the bicycle shed. This stretches across a hundred years and half the world. I’ll start with me, but you must hear from Frank Henderson too. I’m enclosing copies of his papers. More than a century ago, when he was about your age, he sailed to the South Seas aboard a warship. It’s ultimately because of him that I’m here now.

Editorial Reviews

Praise for Henderson's Spear:

"Richly imagined and crisply written... Romantic but unsentimental, this is a beautifully constructed story with fascinating characters and authentic details that play off one another in surprising and often shocking ways. The thematic homage to Melville is punctuated with other literary allusions that enrich and deepen an already thoroughly engrossing tale of the South Pacific." -- Publisher's Weekly

“…a fast-paced tale of travel, adventure, family (and royal) secrets, infused with a moral vision reminiscent of Joseph Conrad.” -- Judy Stoffman, Toronto Star September 30, 2001

"Wright has fashioned a truly global novel, fired by anger at the exploitation of the earth by colonialism and the economic forces that have succeeded it, and by a love for the creatures and civilizations that have vanished in the name of so-called progress." -- John Bemrose Maclean's October 8, 2001

“Don’t be put deterred by the fact that Henderson’s Spear is hailed as postfeminist and postmodern. It is also a page-turning adventure tale that grabs the Victorian notion of an Imperial boy’s adventure story and turns it on its masculine axle.” -- Sandra Martin, The Globe and Mail, October 29, 2001.

“Ronald Wright has written a Gauguin canvas and a volcanic tremor of a novel.” — Len Gasparini, Toronto Star

“Charming and delightful…. Perhaps the greatest achievement of this novel is the way it reads as something intimate notwithstanding the grandeur of its scope.” -- Mary Ambrose, National Post

Henderson’s Spear is an intriguing, warm-toned, well-written and spirited novel, a credit to its tradition.” -- John Spurling, Times Literary Supplement

“Powerful evocation of the Pacific world….[Victorian adventure] has succesfully been given a modern make-over by a number of recent novelists — William Boyd in Brazzaville Beach, for example — and now by Wright.” -- Adam Lively, Sunday Times UK

“A taut fiction of tremendous beauty.” -- Susan Grimbly, Ottawa Citizen

“Sometimes a novel hooks you in its opening pages and doesn’t let go. Henderson’s Spear is that kind of tale … beautifully executed from start to finish.” -- Douglas Johnston, Winnipeg Free Press

Praise for A Scientific Romance

"A Scientific Romance should...share with Fugitive Pieces the very upper rung of [20th-century Canadian literature]." -- from Bill Richardson's foreword to Great Canadian Books of the Century

"An elegant novel...gripping and lyrical; you struggle to slow down but find yourself rushing forward." -- The New Yorker
"A treasure...delightfully witty and suspenseful." -- Alberto Manguel, The Globe and Mail

"Powerful...cunningly fashioned.... A profound meditation on the nature of time." -- The New York Times Book Review
"Deeply seductive and brilliantly sustained." -- The Observer

"A classic." -- The Guardian
"A work of great beauty built on nightmare." -- Boston Book Review

Other titles by Ronald Wright

Related lists