John Steffler’s The Afterlife of George Cartwright
McClelland & Stewart, 1992

When John Steffler’s novel opens, Nottinghamshire is shimmering with the energy of May and George Cartwright describes the familiar route he’s taking on his horse. Doesn’t seem that remarkable. Yet.

But. It’s the “same route he’s taken every day since his death in 1819”.

Hm. Since his death. A man on his horse, his hawk on one fist, feeling the buzz of the awakening land around him: the last thing the reader is expecting is to learn that he is a dead man.

George Cartwright doesn’t find it surprising. He’s been dead a long time, and even if death isn’t what he expected it to be, “after 170 years it isn’t something that troubles him very much anymore”.

But the passing of a double-decker bus straight-through him? That gets his attention.

And it gets him thinking: the arrival of the bus yanks his feet off the ground and he slips into the past, into the years that preceded his death. And what happened in the years he was alive definitely does trouble him very much, still.

Something went awry when George Cartwright was a younger man, an explorer, an adventurer in wintry climes who sought alliances with the aboriginal people resident there.

He was not the sort of white man who slaughtered first and asked questions later; George Cartwright had thoughts which challenged the prevailing idea that the natives were something-less-than-human and could be disposed of mercilessly if they interfered or irritated.

But he was still possessed an inherent sense of superiority, only tempered by his ability to recognize opportunity and skill when he saw it.

“Of all the people I ever yet heard of, the Eskimo, I think, are the most uncleanly. They even exceed the accounts which I have read of the Hottentots, for they not only eat the guts of an animal, but with a still higher gout for delicacies of this kind, they devour even the contents!”

This observation comes from George Cartwright in October 1770. And there is no mention that another culture might be equally offended and horrified by the idea that someone might slaughter an animal without putting every part of it to use.

Of course George Cartwright doesn’t have that perspective — he is a good ol’ colonial boy — but neither is he slaughtering the natives.

“He marvelled at them as people with gills who could live under water, or winged people who could flap along comfortably hundreds of feet in the air.”

Nonetheless modern readers understand the complexity inherent in this situation. They’re expecting things to go wrong for George, and they do go wrong.

Although he finds it difficult to keep track of what exactly went wrong and where he might have taken a different turn.

He did keep a journal, which aids with his recollection (and George Cartwright’s actual journal did inspire John Steffler), but it’s not an easy fix.

“He dug out his journal to get back a sense of his real experience, the real place. At first he was frustrated by what he read. Why hadn’t he written more often about the important things? Why hadn’t he written more? It gave such a false, shallow impression of what he’d done.”

[One of my favourite bits in this novel comes from the journal and, ironically, it’s not even George’s voice, but that of a woman who has found his journal and added her own bit to it. Turns out that, although George’s version detailed the event of his having attended a successful childbirth, he left out the fact that he was looking something up in a book and neglected to actually catch the baby on its way out; the woman who did catch the infant adds her bit, and not only does the reader get a good chuckle out of it, but a good poke in the ribs to pay attention to what George Cartwright is leaving out of his accounting. This scene made the book for me.]

Ultimately, the most important parts of The Afterlife of George Cartwright must be what’s left unsaid. When the natives travel with him to England, they don’t have looks of admiration or satisfaction on their faces, but “a kind of revulsion, a kind of fear” (189). Their thoughts on their experience aren’t shared and the reader is left to imagine.

The reader is also left to imagine the extent of George Cartwright’s experiment. He realizes that his journal only contains a “slim version of the truth” but he comes to appreciate that version more and more as the years pass. And, eventually, he decides to continue on his journal, writing as things might have been, might have become.

So you can read John Steffler’s novel for its sense of frontier adventure and daily life on the reaches — everything from trapping techniques to birth control methods — or you can read it for its sense of mystery.

How do we make sense of things once their senselessness takes hold? Can the pages of a journal hold any truer a glimpse of the truth than a man’s memory decades hence? Can we trust the facts held in history?

This title came my way because Aritha van Herk included it in her list of Canadian must-reads: I don’t know how I missed it, but I’m pleased to have mended the gap.

Companion Reads:

Frances Brooke’s The History of Emily Montague (1769)
Gabrielle Roy’s Windflower (1970)
Robert Specht (Anne Hobbs) Tisha (1976)