A Legacy of Exploration
- Ronald Wright (Author)
Henderson's Spear. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Barbara Hodgson (Author)
Hippolyte's Island. Raincoast Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Alison Rukavina
A legacy of European expansion into the supposedly empty and unexplored reaches of the globe reverberates through to the present day, with global politics and policies still influenced by the remnants of past empire building. In the last forty years, the defining principles of exploration—discovering the unknown reaches of the earth, and the populating and civilizing of them—have begun to be questioned, and modern explorers, as well as armchair travellers, are today confronted with the consequences of imperialism. Henderson’s Spear and Hippolyte’s Island are two novels that examine the impact of European exploration on the descendants of the discoverers.
Henderson’s Spear opens with Vancouverite Olivia Wyvern in a Tahitian jail under arrest for murder. Olivia travels to Tahiti in search of her father, missing in action since the Korean War, but believed to be alive and hiding somewhere in the South Pacific. The novel takes the form of a letter to the daughter Olivia gave up at birth, explaining her present predicament and her family’s history. Included with the letter are passages from the journals of Olivia’s distant relative, Frank Henderson, who, as a young British officer in the nineteenth century, travelled to the South Seas on the Bacchante with Queen Victoria’s grandsons Prince George and Prince Edward. Henderson’s journal offers clues to the Henderson/Wyvern family secrets, including the origin of a spear that captivated Olivia and her father, the tragic fascination various family members have had with Tahiti, and the ways in which the legacy of Tahiti’s colonial past shapes Olivia’s past and present.
Henderson’s Spear is an ambitious novel which alternates between the two points of view of Frank and Olivia, and the past and present of colonial politics in the South Seas. Ronald Wright probes the history and effects of empire, revealing that Olivia’s quest to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance is intricately connected to Frank’s journey to Tahiti a hundred years earlier. The novel suggests that the legacy of colonialism reverberates throughout the twentieth century and is less a legacy than a continuing actuality: depending on the eye of the beholder, empire building continues in the present.
The novel is made more poignant by the fact that Wright draws upon his own family history in the form of Frank Henderson, who actually existed and served on the Bacchante with Queen Victoria’s grandsons. The Henderson passages, which seamlessly mix his actual journal entries with Wright’s fictional plot, consequently reveal the flatness of Olivia’s character and her sections of the novel. While Henderson is a fascinating study of a Victorian British adventurer—and the novel is worth reading for the Henderson passages alone—Olivia’s character is fitfully developed through excessive plot twists that hinder the overall story rather than support it.
Hippolyte’s Island also deals with the legacy of nineteenth-century politics and exploration. The novel is about one man, Hippolyte Webb, and his desire to emulate the early explorers and seek the unknown. However, Hippolyte is faced with the reality that in the modern age of global positioning systems, little is unknown or even unmapped. He decides to look not for the unknown, but the lost: the Aurora islands, a chain of three islands thought to have existed off the coast of South America a hundred years ago, but since discounted as fantasy. The first part of Hodgson’s novel details Hippolyte’s preparations and eventual voyage of re-discovery to these islands. The second part of the novel is set on the islands, as Hippolyte charts their flora and fauna, finding along the way evidence of past human settlement, including human remains. The last section of Hippolyte’s Island is about what Hippolyte endures in trying to get a book about his voyage ready to print—not even his editor believes his account of islands that appear and disappear.
The mystery of Hodgson’s novel is not whether the islands exist or not, or even that islands could go missing in the first place, but whether Hippolyte will be able to convince his skeptics and authenticate his claims. A lack of historical and photographic evidence leaves Hippolyte’s editor questioning his discovery, and the final part of the novel is about this quest for authentication. The beautiful maps, charts, and pictures appended to this lively novel add to its apparent authenticity, as they represent Hippolyte’s physical evidence under question. Eventually the novel reveals that past explorations of these islands directly influence Hippolyte’s ability to authenticate his claims: what Hippolyte wants to uncover, others in the nineteenth century have attempted to cover.
Henderson’s Spear and Hippolyte’s Island examine the connections between modern travellers and their descendents, at the same time that they raise questions about the objectives of modern travel and its relation to past exploration.
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MLA: Rukavina, Alison. A Legacy of Exploration. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #180 (Spring 2004), (Montgomery, Carson, Bissoondath, Goodridge). (pg. 187 - 188)
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