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  • 'The Magnetic North'

    Thu, 22 Apr 2010 03:55

    Just longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction is Sarah Wheeler's The Magnetic North: Travels in the Arctic reviewed in the Guardian late last year:

    To many British people, the word "Arctic" may still conjure up the Canadian High Arctic, the ice-locked wonderland of whalers and lost Victorian expeditions. "Arctic peoples" probably suggests the Inuit, with igloos and sleds. Alternatively, "Arctic" may mean the home of climate change. Ice is frightening, but so is the sudden lack of it. With the Chukchi and Sami peoples we are less familiar, as we are with the "taiga": the vast band of pine forest reaching across the extreme north of Europe and Russia.

    "What is the Arctic?" is a question Sara Wheeler sets out to answer. It's important we update our imaginations, and set aside the igloos, because whatever the Arctic is, "everyone wants what the Arctic has": land, oil and minerals.

    Fifteen years ago, then a younger woman and one without children, Wheeler wrote Terra Incognita, about the Antarctic. After that unpeopled emptiness she was, she admits, prejudiced against the "complicated, life-infested north". There is, however, an irrepressible flavour to Wheeler's writing, and to her sense of project. She sets out on a series of journeys to different parts of the extreme north, travelling into all the Arctic-holding countries: Russia, the US, Canada, Greenland, the Scandinavian states. In a lovely image, she likens the Arctic to a bracelet made of antler horn, which she was given by a Sami man with whom she stayed. It was cold and hard and white, and "I fancied that it smelled of smoke and beechwood". What she discovers, though, is a sorry mess of brutality and ignorance, cruelty and environmental pillage -- and resilience and beauty (more...)

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