THE AFTERLIFE OF GEORGE CARTWRIGHT
Volume 20 Number 4
John Steffler teaches at Memorial University's Sir Wilfrid Grenfell College in Corner Brook, Nfld. Better known as a poet (The Grey Islands ¹ and The Wreckage of Play - McClelland & Stewart, 1988), John Steffler, with The Afterlife of George Cartwright, becomes a novelist as well.
This novel is based on the life of a real Newfoundland adventurer, George Cartwright (1738-1819), who wrote a journaland many letters about his experiences in Labrador between 1768 and 1786, or thereabouts. Steffler has told the story in the first person as Cartwright might have told it. Indeed, he uses some of Cartwright's own journal entries interspersed with fictional ones. (I would have liked to have known which were Cartwright's and which were Steffler's by an asterisk or some other mark.) The narrator is actually the ghost or soul of George Cartwright in the present day, reliving his own life in his memory.
A fascinating account of a gentleman adventurer's life, this novel also fills out the characters of Cartwright's associates: his companion, Mrs. Selby; his brother, John; his mistress, Caubvick; and Attuiock, the Inuit chief/priest, whom he tries to befriend and eventually destroys.
It also portrays for us in the twentieth century how life was lived in the eighteenth - the hardships, the way of life, the things that we consider heroic that they did as a matter of course. Take, for example, living in an uninsulated cabin through the dark winter of the north, or using ochre and animal grease to discourage blackflies (though Cartwnght was so used to lice and fleas that the blackflies were only a nuisance to him).
This novel has more than one modern theme. There is the betrayal of the native peoples and also the betrayal of the land. Cartwright, sportsman and hunter, finally realizes the waste in his indiscriminate killing, and writes:
I think I should have learned to worship
Catherine R. Cox is a teacher - librarian at Moncton High School in Moncton, New Brunswick.
¹ Reviewed vol. Xlll/5 September 1985, p. 226.
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