In 1872, nineteen people were set adrift on arctic ice after a mishap aboard the Polaris on a US- backed expedition intended to be the first to reach the North Pole. Following their rescue, George Tyson, the ship’s assistant navigator, published an account of the ordeal, casting himself largely in the role of hero and disparaging the actions and motivations of many of the crew members. Tyson was an American and his crew largely German. In Afterlands, Heighton reimages both the story and the aftermath, focusing on Tyson, Roland Kruger, an educated and strong-willed seaman, and Tikulita, one of their Inuit or Esquimaux guides and a woman to whom both men are drawn.
Six months isolated on an ice floe with dwindling supplies and fading hope of rescue provides fodder for a grim story of struggle and survival. The man-versus-nature tale is layered with interpersonal intrigue and suspicion. Whom to trust when everyone on the floe has reason to be distrusted; nationalism and racism rear their ugly heads; and, starvation distorts rational thought?
The hardships are unimaginable and the affects enduring. The “afterlands” that the survivors inhabit are continually shaped by events that occurred during the ordeal. The award-winning Heighton writes with the kind of grace, sensitivity and attention to detail that not only puts the readers out on the ice with the stranded explorers but also allows them to peer deep into the characters’ hearts as they try to come to terms with their experiences and their actions.