Belonging to History
- Steven Heighton (Author)
Afterlands. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Andrew Bartlett
Afterlands is an historical novel that feels more densely researched, more studiously considered than most. It makes us think about the interplay of Aboriginal and European people as they exchanged, embraced, clashed in the nineteenth-century making of North America. Heighton uses his sources—primarily George Tyson’s Arctic Experiences (1874)—neither to exoticize nor to mythologize, temptations to which historical fiction can fall prey. Instead, he creates that sense of a debt to the dead that marks the difference between history and fiction. Afterlands is imbued with a desire to respect the people who were “here” before us.
Roland Kruger is a sailor of German birth, Lieutenant George Tyson his Yankee commander, Tukulito an “Esquimaux” woman. These three, along with a formidable cast of minor figures, make up a human party that drifts on ice floes for 1800 miles, starving, getting lucky with a hunt, feasting, starving again, freezing, fighting and at last surviving. When the novel opens, Tyson has published a narrative of the ordeal, damaging the reputation of Kruger and others while inflating his own, then going on lecture tours. Heighton takes us back to imagine the party on the ice. Tension follows from enmity between Kruger and Tyson. Tension between Kruger and Tukulito follows from their not being free to appear to care for each other. At first, Tyson seems the villain, Kruger the hero, Tukulito the heroine stuck between men; but Heighton complicates each main figure into an exquisitely nuanced human portrait. The novel’s last third finds Kruger in Mexico. He gets involved with a village of Sina people—despite his self-endangering pacifism—when they clash with troops of soldiers representing the militant young Mexican state. To give nothing away, suffice it to say that the love interest between Kruger and Tukulito, amazingly uncontaminated by cliché, endures to the end. Likewise, the enmity of Kruger and Tyson simmers until the immensely moving closing scenes. The surprises, none cheap, are so well-wrought that they stop one again even on a second reading.
The vanity of quests for moral purity that require one’s not belonging to any “people” is one thematic preoccupation (Kruger’s story). The delusion engendered by too-easy resentment of “authority” is another (Tyson turns out a dignified victim in his own way). Heighton handles with tact the impossible situation of North American Aboriginal peoples, the Esquimaux and Sina. The enigma of Tukulito’s being at once Esquimaux and anglophone Victorian (having been taken overseas to meet the Queen) preoccupies him. She figures both as a reservoir of contained spirit and a surface of carnal beauty.
A formal fissure in the text arises with a certain duplication effect, a flagging of the analogous, in those echoes sounded during the “Afterlands” (Mexico) section that recall bits of the “Versions of Loyalty” section. Kruger’s women awkwardly overlap: when Jacinta, his Sina lover, complains about being lumped with others, I hear the text ironically confessing to some strain in the prolongation of its primary figure’s self-signifying. But could we have stopped at the end of “Versions of Loyalty”? No, because as a novel Afterlands is partly about mourning and living with impossibilities. It is even about the wisdom of forgiving one’s enemies, but without triteness, because it is also about the virtue of having one’s enemy (Kruger finds that virtue in a splendid apex of violence). Steven Heighton has thought long about the mysteries of resentment and love, the tension between our desire for belonging, and its perversion in group resentment (racist, ethnic, “nationalist”). The one thing that may be under-thought is a tendency toward the demonizing of national as opposed to other forms of human belonging (couple, family, village, “people”). To have a “culture” seems innocent, to have a nation—a “political” allegiance—corrupt. Must we think so? Humans are not political animals? Why is it that the politics of “culture,” but not the nation, seems innocent now? Anyway, one would be an invidious fool to make from such questions an excuse not to dive in here and share Heighton’s journey. Afterlands is a work so intelligent, so engaging, I really can’t recommend it enough.
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Books reviewed: An Inexplicable Story by Káca Polácková Henley and Josef Skvorecky
- Going with the Flow by Lawrence Mathews
Books reviewed: River Thieves by Michael Crummey
- Belonging to History by Andrew Bartlett
Books reviewed: Afterlands by Steven Heighton
- "Ouestward" Bound by I. MacLaren
Books reviewed: In Search of the Western Sea / À la Recherche de la Mer de l'Ouest: Selected Journals of La Vérendrye / Mémoires choisis de La Vérendrye by Denis Combet and Starting Out in the Afternoon: A Mid-Life Journey into Wild Land by Jill Frayne
- More Northern Indices by Sherrill Grace
Books reviewed: Gamblers and Dreamers: Women, Men, and Community in the Klondike by Charlene Porsild, True North: The Yukon and the Northwest Territories by William R. Morrison, Un/Covering the North: News, Media, and Aboriginal People by Valerie Alia, and Across the Top of the World: The Quest for the Northwest Passage by James P. Delgado
MLA: Bartlett, Andrew. Belonging to History. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #195 (Winter 2007), Context(e)s. (pg. 149 - 150)
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