The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Coast
Reviewed by Jonathan Dore
Sara Wheeler’s new book combines two of her main interests, travel writing and cold places. Although she has written about road trips in Chile and big game hunters in Kenya, her own magnetic attraction seems to be towards the poles: she was a writer-in-residence in Antarctica in 1994, producing the acclaimed Terra Incognita as a result; she then wrote a superbly accomplished biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, participant in and chronicler of Scott’s last expedition. By her own account she felt the Arctic lacked the grandeur and glamour of Antarctica, but mounting concern about climate change—most noticeable in the far north—and growing interest in the messily imperfect collision of indigenous human societies with a polar climate—absent in the far south—led her to spend some time with reindeer-herding Sámi. Following this trip she conceived a series of visits to each of the Arctic countries in turn, starting in far eastern Siberia and working eastwards through North America, Greenland, and back to Lapland and the western Russian Arctic. For unexplained reasons she omits Iceland, which although it sits just below the Arctic Circle is, in climate and landscape, a true piece of the Arctic nonetheless. It’s also home to the only indigenous Arctic culture with an ancient literature, a resource that would surely have helped us grasp not just the wildlife and icescapes of the North, but the interior life of its people.
It’s important to be clear what the book is not: it isn’t a travel book in the sense of recording a journey: its many separate journeys have no connection, forming a pointillistic series of disconnected placements at different times. The logistics of organizing travel to the Arctic are notoriously hair-raising, so the possibility of fashioning a single continuous journey must always have been remote, even if it could be sustained physically and mentally. Nevertheless, the lack of a single trajectory, and the tendency (in most chapters) to encamp at a destination rather than move around, gives the narrative a certain stasis, and the choice of locations a seeming randomness, that prevents the book having the sense of unity and purpose that travel writing based on a journey can give. The disjointed approach also reveals lacunae in the author’s experiences: Wheeler states confidently that Alaska’s Dalton Highway is “the only land route to the Arctic Ocean”, which must be news to travellers on the Dempster Highway and its northern extension to Tuktoyaktuk, which is after all just next door in the Yukon Territory. If her exposure to the Canadian Arctic hadn’t been limited to a couple of pinpricks (Iqaluit and a geological camp on Southampton Island) that’s the sort of mistake that might have been avoided.
What Magnetic North has instead is a meditative, and often melancholy, quality that tells us a lot about what it’s like to simply be in the Arctic, rather than travel through it: the sights and sounds, the ever-present insect annoyance, the subordination of all human activity to the exigencies of weather and geography, the contrasting emphases of isolation and communal solidarity, and, yes, the sense of stasis, embraced for the Zen enjoyment of it when you have no choice but to wait for others to take you from place to place.
More overt themes recur as central strands linking the chapters: the mutually uncomprehending encounters between indigenous hunter-gatherers and nation states, playing out with dispiriting similarity from one country to the next; the Arctic as a mineral bonanza whose value those nation states have rarely failed to appreciate to the last rouble, krone, or cent; the underlying spectre of climate change that greeted Wheeler at every place she stopped, and the related phenomena of bioaccumulation and polar amplification, which concentrate both industrial toxins and the effects of increasing temperature in the Arctic. Having set out as a climate-change agnostic, Wheeler admits to being convinced, at the end, of its stone-cold-sobering reality.
Alongside these themes the author deftly weaves in some nicely crafted vignettes that illuminate various aspects of the Arctic experience as reflected in the history, politics, or exploration of each of the countries she visits. Some of her most successful digressions include those on the Alaska pipeline (the defining presence in the background of all discussions of that state), on the air-route pioneer Gino Watkins, on the anarchic characters of the Klondike Gold Rush, on the skiing prowess of the Sámi and, at either end of the unfathomable Russian north, the sickening horror of the gulags. A few are less successful, such as the breakneck summary of 19th-century Arctic exploration, which deserves the same seriousness with which other subjects are treated rather than the throwaway flippancy displayed here. But the Arctic has so much longer and more varied a human history than the Antarctic that perhaps Wheeler’s southern experience simply misled her into underestimating the amount of material to be digested before writing a book that really partakes of that richness. Anyone wanting an expertly informed—and elegantly written—account of the Arctic’s human history might want to seek out Robert McGhee’s The Last Imaginary Place (2006), but for those wanting a sympathetic, engaged, and multivarious survey of the state of the Arctic today, Magnetic North is a valuable and enjoyable read.
Editor's note: This review appears courtesy of the Times Literary Supplement, in which a shorter version appeared on 12 February 2010