Sunday, March 6, 2011
THE MAGNETIC NORTH
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$26, 336 pages
British travel writer Sara Wheeler swaps penguins for polar bears in her latest book, "The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle," about her Arctic journeys -- with kids in tow -- above the 66th parallel.
In this antipodal companion to her best-selling "Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica," Wheeler combines personal travel narrative with historical accounts of Hyperborean exploration and a layman's grasp of arctic science to offer a cleareyed assessment of the region's importance as a bellwether for global climate change.
Drawn to "the pared-down existence of polar lands and the grace of their peoples under pressure," Wheeler sets forth from Chukotka, a desolate region in the farthest reaches of eastern Siberia, "as far as you can go without running the risk of bumping into Sarah Palin." Following a counterclockwise itinerary, each chapter finds her on a short stint in a new locale where she describes the boom-and-bust economies, delicate ecosystems and fringe societies she encounters.
Wheeler bonds with a plucky female trucker as they drive the length of "the most expensive stretch of land in America," the Dalton Highway, that parallels the strategic trans-Alaska pipeline. She treks over ice fields in Canada and Greenland with scientists and Internet-poker-playing Inuit and herds reindeer with the Sami in Lapland. She returns to Russia for her final chapters, first island-hopping around the North Atlantic on an icebreaker-turned-cruise ship before ending her tour with a visit to the remote site of a once-influential Orthodox church that became the prototype for Stalin's horrific gulag prisons.
Her journeys offer opportunities to examine the bigger issues affecting the North Pole through the lens of individuals and their personal stories, and she finds that the most serious problems are shared across the region. The dispossession of indigenous peoples of their land and culture is a major theme, along with the disastrous effects of government meddling and international conflict over precious resources. Most disheartening is the legacy of what she terms "well-intentioned technological innovation" that has resulted in the arctic paradox of "the people who live farthest from pollutants [being] the ones most affected by them."
While it has its requisite passages on the grandeur of dawn-colored icebergs and the stresses of an extreme climate (not to mention polar bears), "The Magnetic North" stands apart from the genre of back-to-nature escapist travel writing or the masochistic navel-gazing feats of endurance chronicled by what she terms the "Frozen Beard" breed of macho male explorers. Wheeler uncomplainingly bears the hardships of a harsh land in order to paint an honest, if pessimistic, portrait of the Arctic: "I was not looking for a pretty picture. I was looking to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom and the horror."
Through it all, the grim realities of "The Magnetic North" are counterbalanced by the unassuming elegance of her prose and more than a dash of dry British wit. Like old ice, the book is densely packed, with history, stories, and all the beautiful messiness of humankind; what emerges is a thoroughly engrossing travelogue that sets Wheeler among the foremost of contemporary travel writers.
Reading: Wheeler reads from "The Magnetic North" at 7:30 p.m. March 16 at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St.
Posted by Voyage Adviser at 7:16 AM