Reviewed: October 31, 2006
By: Stephen Heighton
Publisher: Knopf Canada
407 pages, $32.95
In a week where the Designer Guys revamped
Berton House and their northern trek made it onto ET Canada, it seems only
fitting to take a look at a book partially written at the house by a former
guest of the house, whose “brief by inspiring residency in Dawson City in
2001” helped to bring this book along.
Heighton is one of those writers who
took the mandate of the Berton House retreat program quite literally and worked
on a book with a northern theme, borrowing the framework of his novel from
Charles Francis Hall’s ill-fated USS Polaris expedition into the fabled
Northwest Passage. Hall died, or perhaps was killed, and nineteen members
of the expedition abandoned the ship, which appeared to be in danger from
the encroaching ice.
They watched as the ship drifted away,
not sinking, and spent the next 196 days drifting slowly southward, as their
fragile home slowly melted away from beneath them, until they were rescued
by a Newfoundland sealer.
The core of this book, “Versions of
loyalty”, is about what happened during those 196 days. The source material
for this section is the published account of Captain George Tyson, a somewhat
unreliable observer who is plagued by feelings of inadequacy (which may be
well founded) and who takes credit in his writings for the survival of those
under his command, even though it is clear that none would have made it without
the skills of the Inuit who were part of the group.
The story opens after all of that has
taken place, and gives us a stunning portrait of several strangers in a strange
land. We watch as the dying Inuit (Esquimau in this novel) girl, Punnie, ages
10, gives a stunning piano recital in Hartford, Conn., under the watchful
eyes of her parents, her tutor, and some of the survivors of the expedition.
Punnie is dying, as so many aboriginals did, of an assault by germs which
nothing in her life in the north had prepared her to withstand.
We shift to the viewpoint of Roland
Kruger, one of the Germans who crewed the Polaris, and a man who was
made a villain in Tyson’s published account of the expedition. In Kruger’s
version of the tale, for which he can find no publisher, it was Punnie’s mother,
Tukulito, or Hannah, as the Europeans called her, who was the real hero of
their icebound journey, but no one knows that.
This section, “Bury me at sea”, ends
at Punnie’s graveside, as the two men argue once more over the truth of the
matter. Then they part. We will see where each goes later, but first we return
to the events which defined their lives.
The core of the book is a dense story,
shifting from Tyson’s viewpoint to Kruger's and sometimes to others of the
party. It has the intensity of the present tense, with shifts in font to show
Tyson’s journal, which Heighton has adapted for his story. Their tale is fraught
with hardship, with some insanity, bigotry and nationalist competition, brought
out in the struggle for dominance between the American leaders of the expedition
and their Germanic crew.
The tension between Tyson and Kruger
is evident throughout the narrative. Kruger sees the captain as ineffective
and Tyson sees the sailor as a traitor and moral degenerate. Since little
is actually known about Kruger, Heighton can paint him as he wishes, and makes
him the complete outsider, a man caught in the middle of events and suspected
by both sides in the struggle.
I am not a fan of the writing convention
that uses no quotation marks for dialogue. I find it makes it hard to distinguish
between speakers, between thought and words spoken aloud. Perhaps this is
Heighton’s concession to his blending of fact and fiction here.
Part three, “Afterlands”, follows the
careers of Tyson and Kruger. The former attempts unsuccessfully to recapture
past glories. The arc of his career descends.
Kruger makes a new life for himself
in Mexico and succeeds there until his family is destroyed during that nation’s
internal strife and he finds himself caught up in a civil war, once more choosing
the aboriginal people over the army brigades that ravage the rural villages.
After much struggle he becomes a sort of hero, though he is not able to see
himself that way.
Returning to the United States, he
seeks out Tyson and they achieve a sort of reconciliation, journeying together
to Punnie’s grave and the town were Hannah also died. Kruger returns to Mexico
and vanishes into history. Tyson dies seven years after their last meeting.
There are a lot of ways in which this
novel reminds me of of Heighton’s short story, “The Stages of J. Gordon Whitehead”,
the fictionalized tale of the man who delivered the punch which killed Houdini.
Both work with real people in creative ways, trying to get to the core of
what they were about and how they reacted to seminal events in their lives.
In a poem at the beginning of this
novel, Heighton wrote:
Wanted to shadow the three of you,
by the one storm, Tracked you (or some
cinder of you) to churchyards along
near Mystic, or indio graveyards above the gaunt
gorges of Sinola - a search party of
one, a mere
I’d have to say that he has managed
to do that.