four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
By: 
Sara Wheeler
user_rating: 
0

Notes from the Arctic Circle

A-The Magnetic NorthBritish journalist, biographer, and travel writer Sara Wheeler spent seven months exploring Antarctica, a journey chronicled in her acclaimed 1998 book, Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica. The Magnetic North is an account of her two-year tour through another forbidding, but vitally important, land--the Arctic.

The Topic: Beginning and ending in Russia, Wheeler treks east through Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Scandinavia in an attempt to "shed some dim light on the enigmas of the Arctic." Marveling at the austere beauty of the region's landscape, she explores its history, scientific significance, and the lives it has shaped--from polar explorers and aviators to the 4 million inhabitants who have tragically fallen victim to poverty, pollution, and industrial exploitation. "Just as the Arctic shows what we are good at--individual endurance, initiative, and dogged investigation," observes Wheeler, "it also reveals what we are bad at, which is collective, preventive action. I do not think that one could stay long in the Arctic without concluding that the present way of the world in unsustainable."
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 336 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780374200138

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"To many who haven't been there, the Arctic is a pristine world of shimmering ocean, ice and sky. In reality, as Sara Wheeler shows in her insightful new travelogue, it is a gritty--if transcendent--mess. ... The result is a no-holds-barred tour of what happens when human demands and the environment collide." Alexandra Witze

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"This sounds like a miserable read, but it's not. It's buoyed up by Wheeler's collection of Arctic lore, histories, and picaresque characters." Kathleen Jamie

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Wheeler readily admits her chronicle is not a comprehensive history, but this in no way diminishes this amazing story. Her rollicking, fact-filled narrative seamlessly blending historical and contemporary storytelling is a bewitching tale about this remarkable and compelling region." Julie Foster

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"This book is about people, and it's deeply unromantic. Want somersaulting polar bears? Explorer heroics? Inuit magic? Look elsewhere. ... With wry humor and extensive research, Wheeler captures a swiftly transforming region with which we all have a symbiotic relationship." Holly Morris

Telegraph (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"The Magnetic North is a snowstorm of historical, geographical and anthropological facts. The most riveting, in the best tradition of travel writing, are the most colourful, and speak of lives remote from us." Gill Hornby

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Magnetic North is immensely rich and detailed, both in historical and scientific data and in Wheeler's descriptions of the scenes she encounters; at the same time, this wealth of information makes the book some work to get through. ... [Part] travelogue, part history, part environmental reportage, [it] is an exploration of the polar north, and a comprehensive and thoughtful portrait of a area that is, as Wheeler describes it, ‘an image of the real world in all its degradation and beauty, and it is intimately connected to us--to our future, our crises, and our dreams.'" Rob Verger

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"She generally tells her stories well, particularly her longer pieces about the history of a place, and occasionally has a delightful turn of phrase, such as referring to Soviet urban infrastructure as 75 years of ‘centrally planned vandalism.' In contrast, her time on the ground, visiting and interacting with the Arctic's current inhabitants, feels more cursory and slight." David B. Williams

Critical Summary

Wheeler serves as an engaging and insightful guide through the countries that surge up past the 66th parallel. Reviewers praised her storytelling skills, her nose for obscure and fascinating facts, and her refusal to romanticize the region's indigenous cultures; and, surprisingly, none objected to her evidence for climate change. The Boston Globe occasionally found the flood of information overwhelming, and others wished that Wheeler had spent more time in the field and less in the library, but the New York Times Book Review labeled these complaints "quibbles," maintaining that "Wheeler's sense of place, science, self and story are exceptional." Stuffed with facts and startling revelations, The Magnetic North isn't just for armchair travelers but for anyone concerned about the future of our planet.