cover image Afterlands


Steven Heighton, . . Houghton Mifflin, $24 (406pp) ISBN 978-0-618-13934-7

The retrofitted U.S. Navy tugboat Polaris set out on an expedition for the North Pole in 1872. After getting stuck among ice floes off the coast of Greenland for months, its multinational crew of 25 (plus eight women and children) were separated, with half trapped on the ship and the others trapped on an ice floe onto which they had temporarily decamped. Poet and novelist Heighton (The Shadow Boxer ) brilliantly riffs off (and presents snippets of) the diary and memoir of real-life Lt. George Tyson, who was among the ice floe denizens; they survived seven more months before being rescued. When the captain dies under mysterious circumstances, Heighton focuses on Kruger, a German nonconformist who believes "the idiot willingness to take sides is what feeds the abattoir of history." Latent romantic feelings between Kruger and the group's married Esquimau translator, Tukulito, or "Hannah," further complicate an already desperate situation. Tyson, who eventually took command, skillfully manages to steer the diminishing floe to waters frequented by sealers and steamers. Heighton is terrific on the group's isolation and Tyson's often laconic responses to it. He's less good in dramatizing the postexpedition lives of Tukulito, Tyson and Kruger, but this novel's scale, its delight in detail and its psychological insight make it an exceptionally satisfying adventure. (Feb. 6)