Afterlands

Afterlands

by Steven Heighton

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Overview

In 1871, nineteen men, women, and children, voyaging on the Arctic explorer USS Polaris found themselves cast adrift on an ice floe as their ship began to founder. Based on one of the most remarkable events in polar history, Afterlands tells the haunting story of this small society of castaways—a white and a black American, five Germans, a Dane, a Swede, an Englishman, and two Inuit families—and the harrowing six months they spend marooned in the Arctic, struggling to survive both the harsh elements and one another. As the group splinters into factions along ethnic and national lines, rivalries—complicated by sexual desire, unrequited love, extreme hunger, and suspicion—begin to turn violent. Steven Heighton's provocative novel fills in the blanks of the Polaris's documented history and explores the shattering emotional and psychological consequences faced by those who survive.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618773411
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 02/05/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 418
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

STEVEN HEIGHTON is the internationally acclaimed author of the novels Afterlands and The Shadow Boxer, a Mariner Original that was selected as a Publishers Weekly Book of the Year. He has also written several books of poetry, short fiction, and essays. His work has received numerous awards and has been translated into nine languages.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

BURY ME AT SEA

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.

Two rows ahead of Tukulito are a pair of gentlemen who arrived late and claimed these last seats in the house. The man on the aisle has black hair of collar length, pomaded and combed straight back to cover a bald patch. The rims of his ears stand well out from the sides of his narrow skull. The other has a shaggy head of white hair and, fuzzing the slabs of his claret cheeks, side-whiskers that Tukulito sees whenever he turns to address his companion. His voice is genial and raspy. The black-haired man doesn't turn or even move his head when he speaks, but she hears him too: the ponderous baritone of a butler or mortician. Her hearing is the talent not just of a quiet observer used to being discussed, but also of the Arctic's first professional interpreter, sought after by expeditions for the last twenty years.

The black-haired one's accent is difficult to place, though she gathers he is a visitor, from Canada. She swallows her own impulse to cough so that she can keep listening to him as well as to Punnie. He might remark on Punnie's playing. It matters to her as much as ever that the white people regard her family as something more than a sideshow attraction.

He says softly, I would agree that the question of the Esquimaux' nationality is a highly vexed one. But I maintain that the girl must be deemed Canadian, because her home, in Cumberland Bay, is in Canadian territory.

But that would make her a subject of the British Empire, wouldn't it?

Indeed it would, sir.

The white-haired man chuckles. You can hardly expect us to accept that, Mr Wilt. As you know, the family resides down here in Groton now. And the Polaris expedition was an American enterprise. No, no, Mr Wilt, our claim is thoroughly staked!

Hush! This from a beard and monocle in the next row.

For a few moments, they hush.

Then: Some have declared, sir, that your Polaris expedition was in fact a German one.

The shaggy bear's-head shakes wryly. So now you're claiming the Esquimaux for Germany!

Wilt gives a formal snort and then, as if conscious of being overheard, he whispers, It must be remembered that her parents enjoyed their first contact with civilization in England. They took tea and dined with the Queen herself! The accent of the mother, I am told, is still English!

True enough, Wilt, but —

I understand furthermore that her husband has returned to the Canadian Arctic.

Returned, Mr Wilt, with another American expedition! And he is expected home within the year. Home, Wilt, to Groton!

This last phrase, inanely disembodied, hovers in the brief silence as Punnie completes her third of the Songs without Words — the "Cradle Song," op. 67, no. 6 in E. Its dying trill is deftly executed. She stands under the soaring proscenium arch, buffeted by applause. Her hands dangle at her sides. The tight hard line of her mouth, which always gives her an aspect of stern determination, so adult, now suggests barely contained discomfort. She looks out at the crowd. As if overcome by the response, she brings a hand to her mouth, a fetching gesture, it appears, of bashful pleasure, astonishment at these accolades — but Tukulito understands. Her daughter's coughing can't be heard over the ovation. The two patriots surge to their feet with the rest of the house, and while continuing to clap heartily they go on hauling the child back and forth across international borders.

Some, of course, might submit that they are a nation unto themselves.

Well, but the Danes have also laid claim to that region, haven't they?

It is news to me, sir, but I would be little surprised.

Tukulito remains seated, sheltered in the dark cavity formed by the people standing around her. The gentlemen's words are not unamusing; still, shame flares along her collar and prickles her scalp under the hairpinned Brussels cap. After twenty years she is still not hardened to being spoken of as if absent or incapable of understanding. At first, in London, she quietly relished all the curiosity and attention, accepting it as evidence that her people's faith in their own specialness was not misplaced. The Chosen People is what any nation thinks it is, until history disappoints it; or destroys it. In time her growing knowledge of English allowed her to grasp and forced her to brood on the commentary of onlookers, especially during her and Ebierbing's tenure as fur-clad "Living Exhibits" at P. T. Barnum's American Museum in New York, in 1862. By and by her outlook was changed, her pleasure in public life reduced. This shame is familiar. This shame is the trite undertow of her adult life. But now it forms part of a new and hybrid emotion as her corseted chest floods with the heat of her pride, and anxious love. These Sons and Daughters of the Distant North, Ladies and Gentlemen, possess some ninety words for Snow! Yet only a fraction of human feelings are clearly nameable. Most feelings are complex chords, like the ones Punnie plays, minor or major or suspended, each composed of many notes, a current joy, a lingering shame, a hunger, a loss, all sounding together in a pattern never to be revived. In New York during the war her first child, Butterfly, then later up north King William, slipped from the bone-crib of her arms, and Captain Hall, their beloved American sponsor, died up there as well. Punnie, her Punnie, is adopted after the custom of her people. Her Punnie, her pulse, the very spark in her eyes.

The North took her last baby, let the South preserve this one. She rises to join the ovation but is too short to see her daughter on the stage.

New York City, November 1876

Suicide is one of the few ways for a ruined immigrant to go home.

The East River seems to be exhaling cold, and how Kruger hates that. Hatless and coatless, shivering, he leans on the taffrail of the South Ferry crossing toward Brooklyn, the Atlantic Street pier. Big rawhide hands gripping the top rail. One battered boot up on the lower rail, as if on the rung of a ladder he is hesitating to climb. This aft deck is lit by a single lantern. Alone, he watches the skyline of Manhattan recede. It's apt that a suicide be looking backward in the moment before action.

The skyline is low except for the west tower of the unfinished Brooklyn Bridge, which now in the dark resembles the Gothic facade of the Marienkirche, in Danzig, where Roland Kruger was raised. He's solid, middle height, a trimmed black beard, dark escarpment of standing hair, high forehead carved with horizontal lines. Heavy brows like lintels over blue eyes that in his weathered, fighter's face seem transplanted from a more schooled and studious one. His bluchers, though battered, are polished. A small book bulges in his vest pocket. Even now there's a jut to his chin, an inclination of profile that suggests someone who was once of another class. Or, who has made a habit of defiance.

Kruger was intending to climb the scaffolding around that granite tower, and from there — within sight of the Harper's building — throw himself away, as scores of others had done since the Panic of '73. The authorities, however, had begun posting night watchmen at the fenced perimeter of the worksite. Not wanting to loiter by the fence for several years until the bridge was finished and he could hurl himself off, Kruger decided to bury himself at sea.

He takes a final draw on his pipe and jams it into his waistcoat fob. He swings his left leg over the top rail, then his right, perches on a middle rung, hesitates, then leaps, trying to clear the eddy of curdled water above the steam-prop ten feet below him; still selective. He slaps through the river's dark membrane. After a spell of surrender — making no effort but to empty his lungs of air — he is thrashing, pulling at the icy water white with froth, clawing his way upward. Partly it's the cold, a bitter smack to the face, reviving the instinct of resistance that kept driving him through half a year on the ice. Partly it's how his memory of the ice summons Tukulito's face back to him: her expression near the end, while he and the others braced the lifeboat on what remained of their "island" and the night's giant swells lunged over them. Seemingly calm, even then, blessing him with her stamina, she'd ruddered and renewed him.

He thrusts through the surface and gulps air. The ferry's taffrail lamp is surprisingly far off, leaving him to his own resources much as the Polaris had, withdrawing into the night and stranding him and Tukulito, Tyson, and the others. The icy water clamps his throat and lungs so he can only suck in partial breaths. He dunks under the rolling wake and tries to undo his bluchers. His fingers, swarming the laces, appear worm-like in the gloom. They're too stiff with cold to make headway but he's a strong swimmer and the eroded boots weigh little. He aims for the gothic monolith of the tower. Starboard lamps of the Montague and Fulton ferries in mid-crossing cast wobbling spikes of light on the river. He can see his hands churning but not feel them — not feel whether his boots are still on or have worked themselves off.

Over the tower the moon is a paring short of full. A sky of fathomless depth, of dreadful neutrality. He can see her wide face there, lunar; and the face of her husband, to whom she'll always be loyal.

After the rescue and return, some three years ago, Kruger too was a minor celebrity. Lodged in a small but unembarrassing boardinghouse on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, he was a focus of some pride and comfort for immigrants — Germans, Italians, Irish, Poles — struggling more than ever since the Panic of '73. A Polaris survivor, the Second Mate, here among us! He was a sort of living exhibit, a popular one, although many found him difficult to class — as he preferred. He was rugged in appearance but reflective in manner. People found him friendly in a somewhat contained, distant way, which they mostly attributed to his ordeal on the ice, although others thought he seemed like a man unhappily in love (and yet surely too philosophical, too ironic for love!). He smiled often enough, though with lips closed on the stem of his pipe. He seldom laughed. He measured his words and he delivered them with a satiric glitter in his blue eyes — though more in self-mockery, it seemed, than in mockery of others. He seemed wholly uncomfortable only around cops, wholly unguarded only with children.

This is how he struck his fellow immigrants. And in fact he did prefer the company of children, mostly for how their minds hadn't yet congealed to the point of thinking within borders.

He knew what it was to be frozen and starved. Like his heroes Voltaire and Goethe he would share whatever food he had in his various pockets (stuffed like the cheeks of small, hoarding animals) with the skeletons haunched down on the stoops of nickel lodginghouses, urchins asleep in shitty areaways, families camped under the awnings of failed shops on Atlantic or Dock Street where he became known as the Chestnut Man, having discovered that filling his pockets with hot chestnuts, a penny the bag, would help fend off the Atlantic's winter chill. ... It was a wonder, many felt, that his ordeal had not made him stingy, but then maybe he'd acquired the ways of those Esquimaux, who were well known to share everything, even their wives.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Afterlands"
by .
Copyright © 2005 Steven Heighton.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

C O N T E N T S

One Bury Me at Sea 1

Two Versions of Loyalty 43

Three Afterlands 243

Last Versions 399

Author’s Note 404

Reading Group Guide

1. What is your overall view of Afterlands? Would you recommend the novel to others? Why, or why not?

2. What is the significance of the title Afterlands? What about the different titles of each part of the book? And what do you make of the epigraphs to the novel and to its various parts? (Which epigraph strikes you most keenly?)

3. Consider the minor characters in the novel, for example Frederick Meyer and Matthias Anthing (in the Arctic), or Jacinta and Colonel Maclovio Luz (in Mexico), or your own favourites. Who do you find most significant or memorable, and why?

4. What is the importance of indigenous peoples in Afterlands?

5. Discuss Afterlands as a novel in which a society is reduced to its basics by disaster. What do the characters reveal about their society – and our own? Why are novelists interested in such situations?

Thinking about this, you might want to compare Afterlands to other books such as The Lord of the Flies by William Golding and Blindness by José Saramago, if you have read them. Or, as the Winnipeg Free Press suggests, to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

6. What is your final opinion of Kruger? How do you see Tyson, by the end of the novel? How does your opinion of them change over the book? Why?

7. What is the effect of Steven Heighton’s use of different voices and documents in Afterlands? (You might consider Tyson’s diary and book, the characters’ letters, the poems that start each section, etc.)

8. Discuss the theme of borders in the novel: between nations, between people, between the various identities of a single individual.

If you have read The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, you might want to compare that novel’s treatment of nationality.

9. Read Steven Heighton’s “Author’s Note.” How do you see the obligations of fiction writers to historical events? Is there a “true story” of what happened to the crew of the Polaris?

10. What did you find to criticize in Afterlands? Is there anything you would have wanted more, or less of?

Foreword

1. What is your overall view of Afterlands? Would you recommend the novel to others? Why, or why not?

2. What is the significance of the title Afterlands? What about the different titles of each part of the book? And what do you make of the epigraphs to the novel and to its various parts? (Which epigraph strikes you most keenly?)

3. Consider the minor characters in the novel, for example Frederick Meyer and Matthias Anthing (in the Arctic), or Jacinta and Colonel Maclovio Luz (in Mexico), or your own favourites. Who do you find most significant or memorable, and why?

4. What is the importance of indigenous peoples in Afterlands?

5. Discuss Afterlands as a novel in which a society is reduced to its basics by disaster. What do the characters reveal about their society – and our own? Why are novelists interested in such situations?

Thinking about this, you might want to compare Afterlands to other books such as The Lord of the Flies by William Golding and Blindness by José Saramago, if you have read them. Or, as the Winnipeg Free Press suggests, to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

6. What is your final opinion of Kruger? How do you see Tyson, by the end of the novel? How does your opinion of them change over the book? Why?

7. What is the effect of Steven Heighton’s use of different voices and documents in Afterlands? (You might consider Tyson’s diary and book, the characters’ letters, the poems that start each section, etc.)

8. Discuss the theme of borders in thenovel: between nations, between people, between the various identities of a single individual.

If you have read The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, you might want to compare that novel’s treatment of nationality.

9. Read Steven Heighton’s “Author’s Note.” How do you see the obligations of fiction writers to historical events? Is there a “true story” of what happened to the crew of the Polaris?

10. What did you find to criticize in Afterlands? Is there anything you would have wanted more, or less of?

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Afterlands 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
carioca on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love novels that draw on historical facts. This one is a rich tale following the incident of Arctic survival of the Polaris in 1817; crewmembers and passengers were stranded on an ice flow for six months and the book is about not only what goes on then, but also what takes place in their lives later on. Beautiful, suspenseful, harsh at times; lots of imagery.
deliriumslibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A strange novel grasping after something that it knows it cannot catch: history, the suppressed voice of an indigenous woman surrounded by white culture, things that melt like ice floes. The strangeness of life on the floe, laid down in wrought language, stays with me.