The Magnetic North - Sara Wheeler

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The Magnetic North - Sara Wheeler

Smashing through the Arctic Ocean with the crew of a Russian icebreaker, herding reindeer across the tundra with Lapps and shadowing the Trans-Alaskan...

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Review of "The Magnetic North - Sara Wheeler"

published 31/07/2010 | elkiedee
Member since : 29/09/2003
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Pro Well written, accessible, history and politics as well as travel, a different perspective
Cons Endnotes not indicated in the text
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"More than just another travel book"

The title of this book suggests another travel book about adventure in the frozen north, but Sara Wheeler mixes her tales of her own travels with some history of polar exploration and a serious examination of the impact of visitors and of those who wish to exploit the Arctic’s natural resources on the region and its people. Rather than setting off on another expedition to reach the North Pole, she travels around bits of the Arctic divided between different countries and governments, including Chukotka (Russia), Alaska (USA), Canada, Greenland, Svalbard (Norway) and Lapland (Russia and Scandinavia). There is a huge amount of material in the book but Wheeler organises and presents it in a very readable, accessible style.

The writings in the book cover several trips over a few years. Wheeler arranged to stay with locals in many places and interviewed a range of people, as well as travelling as part of various expeditions. Her findings reflect equally badly on capitalist and Communist/former Communist governments, as many of the people she meets talk about the problems with poverty, alcohol, poor diet (not improved by the introduction of foods imported from elsewhere). Also, increased fears about environmental problems and global warming inform Wheeler’s writing and the discussions she has with interviewees.

Another thread through the book is the history of previous Arctic explorers, the interests, the frustrations, the dangers. Modern exploration is done in quite big groups – Wheeler comments on how crowded the present day Arctic can feel in comparison to the image. This history woven into the book was also interesting.

I really enjoyed Wheeler’s accounts of her own travels, especially the stories of taking each of her sons with her on different trips. Baby Reg was still breastfeeding, although I thought Wheeler was a bit ungrateful to a man who suggested a method of keeping out the cold while doing so using tinfoil. Reg travels on his own wooden sledge wrapped in calf pelts, and in a sling snuggled up to his mother. He was six by the time this book was written and is obviously quite proud of his adventures as an infant. Later she took her older wildlife-loving son Wilf, then aged 10, on an Arctic cruise ship where he gets involved in helping the crew. He is already aware enough of the hazards of global warming to worry that he will not be able to return with his own son.

I did find a couple of aspects of its presentation very annoying. There are 45 black and white pictures interspersed through the text of the book, none of them captioned – what they are of and photo credits etc are detailed in a 3 page List of Illustrations at the start of the book. There are also 11 pages of endnotes, mostly detailing sources for quotations in the text, but there is no indication in the text that there is an endnote. This may be so that the non-academic reader is not interrupted by little numbers indicating something to look up, but I feel a need to read any notes in conjunction with the main text and this really irritated me.

Despite my quibbles, this book has lots of interesting stories and food for thought here, and is highly recommended.

This is an edited version of a review which appeared at

The Ciao listing is for a more expensive edition than the book I have reviewed, and it is now available from Vintage in mass market paperback for £8.99 RRP, and on sale (as of July 2010) at £5.72 from Amazon, making it great value for money.

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Comments on this review

  • jesi published 07/08/2010
    I must admit I like footnotes, myself, although I understand the anxiety that it might distract from the flow of the book . . . I like the really old style books with their list of illustrations AND titles on each photo where it appears . . ♥ jesi ♥
  • paulpry118 published 01/08/2010
    Rather annoying that they can't put names to the photos with them
  • mattydalton published 31/07/2010
    I would hate having to skip to the back to see what the photos are of, sounds pretty annoying.
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Product Information : The Magnetic North - Sara Wheeler

Manufacturer's product description

Smashing through the Arctic Ocean with the crew of a Russian icebreaker, herding reindeer across the tundra with Lapps and shadowing the Trans-Alaskan pipeline with truckers, Sara Wheeler uncovers the beautiful, brutal reality of the Arctic.

Product Details

EAN: 9780224082211

Type: Non-Fiction

Genre: Travel

Subgenre: Places & Peoples

Title: The Magnetic North

Author: Sara Wheeler

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

All Authors: Sara Wheeler

Continent: The Arctic

ISBN: 224082213


Listed on Ciao since: 25/08/2009