I just finished Afterlands, a wonderful novel by Steven Heighton, a poet and novelist. It’s a beautifully-written account of a disastrous expedition to the Arctic and the aftermath of those struggles in the lives of three of the participants. It weaves an incredible and true story of survival, adrift on a chunk of ice through an Arctic winter, into a brilliant imagining of those events and what they created for the survivors. The author tells the events while pulling them through a mesh of conflicts between cultures, languages, nationalisms, class, and more personal commitments.
The first half of the book is the story of the group of nineteen, a mix of whites and Inuit, left adrift on an ice flow in Baffin Bay, while their ship leaves them, never to return. For the next six months, they survive on a slowly shrinking flow of ice, through the Arctic winter, while a slow madness overtakes the entire party. Tyson, the ranking officer of the group, struggles with his doubts and weakness while the party spins apart, rising to the challenge only at the end of the drift, when the flow becomes uninhabitable as it falls apart. Tukulito, the Inuit interpreter, finds her careful separation of her “native” and “white” identities coming apart as starvation and madness pull at the party. And Kruger, one of the several German immigrant seamen on this American expedition, is marooned once again, within the group, as it splits along national and racial lines.
The second half follows mostly the story of Kruger, as he heads south into Mexico, hoping to escape the notoriety that follows the publication of Tyson’s book, in which he is branded a spy and a thief. And, he’s also trying to escape the rationalizations that people use to allow themselves to kill and oppress others. Tukulito finishes her trajectory early, succumbing to tuberculosis a few years after returning, while her husband was away on another Arctic expedition. Tyson finds that acclaim is a poor salve for self-doubt and returns to the Arctic, as well, hoping for a less compromised result.