Book Review

Getting to the bottom of the top of the world

The author’s journey takes her around the Arctic region, including aboard an icebreaker in the Greenland Sea. The author’s journey takes her around the Arctic region, including aboard an icebreaker in the Greenland Sea. (Sara Wheeler)
By Rob Verger
February 8, 2011

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In her new book, British writer Sara Wheeler takes a circular journey around the Arctic region, through what she calls the “collar of lands around the Arctic Ocean.’’ The narrative begins in Chukotka, in Asian Russia, and then progresses to Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, the Norwegian-owned Svalbard islands, northern Scandinavia, and then aboard an icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean. The book finds its terminus in European Russia, in Solovki.

“The Magnetic North,’’ which is expansive in scope, is the clear complement to one of her earlier books, “Terra Incognita,’’ which focused on the Antarctic. The prose in this most recent volume, first published in 2009 in Britain, is supplemented with maps, photographs, and illustrations, and together they tell the story of an evolving region that is growing in importance to the global community.

Wheeler’s account is made up of several layers and themes. Woven along with the through-line of the author’s travels is historical information and stories about explorers who suffered through those same regions in the past. Death, near-death, and lack of food are common themes, as are nationalistic endeavors and the military.

There’s also important treatment of the tension between the indigenous cultures in the Arctic region and the incursion of the modern world into their lands, which Wheeler shows has been catastrophic for the indigenous cultures, even as she resists the urge to romanticize them. She declares in the beginning: “Every nation devastates native cultures, even if it doesn’t actually kill everyone off.’’

The timeliest theme in the book is the environment. In the beginning, she notes, “Since 1900 the mean global temperature has risen by 1.08°F. In the Arctic, the figure is 3.6-5.4°.’’ In the book’s penultimate section, set in the Arctic Ocean, she explains the feedback loop that occurs when ice melts: The white color of the ice, which reflects sunlight, is replaced by the dark color of the ocean beneath it, which absorbs the sun’s heat. Wheeler concludes: “I began this book back in Chukotka with an open mind, but figures recording the loss of sea ice the size of the United Kingdom indicate both the potential scale of this particular feedback effect and the extent to which feedback effects in general dominate the earth’s complex climate system.’’

“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. Wheeler’s sentences, frequently packed with information, can overwhelm: In the section set in Chukotka, she writes: “Besides the Chukchi, who once hunted seal from coracles with obsidian-tipped spears, Khanty men fished the Ob from leaf-shaped dugout canoes, bands of Evenk built bark-covered tepees in the forest, and Dolgan clans migrated with the reindeer, pulling huts mounted on ski runners, called balok, between the Arctic coast and the Yenisey hinterland.’’ Far from every sentence is that long or fact-filled, but between sentences like that and paragraphs that feel long, the content can be hard to assimilate, and the book never builds much momentum. (There are some lovely and vivid descriptions here, too. In Russia, she describes how “a thin line of orange light appeared along the lower edge of the cloud, like the line that glows after the flame on burning paper.’’)

“The Magnetic North’’ part travelogue, part history, part environmental reportage 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 can be reached at

THE MAGNETIC NORTH: Notes from the Arctic Circle By Sara Wheeler

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 315 pp., illustrated, $26