Yukon Books - Whitehorse, Yukon
Yukonbooks.com > Bookends: Dan Davidson

  Bookends: Dan Davidson


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, 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 Sinola - a search party of one, a mere

century-plus late.

I’d have to say that he has managed to do that.

Print Preview


[Special Order Desk]
Great Deals
New Arrivals
Special Offers
Recover password
Contact us
Privacy statement
Terms & Conditions
Shipping Information
Special Orders Desk

Copyright © 2007 Yukonbooks.com