“The Magnetic North”

From Chukotka, the forgotten far-eastern outpost of the Russian Federation, Sara Wheeler makes a sporadic but full polar circumnavigation back to the Barents Sea and the site of Stalin’s original gulag. Tales of the gold rush and the building of the Alaskan oil pipeline segue into accounts of the pressures affecting Canada’s native Inuit.

Legendary searches for a navigable Northwest Passage sit alongside lesser-known yarns of the similarly “prolonged orgy of shoe-eating and death” that typified the north-east trade route.

Sharp and clear, Wheeler’s prose is charged with wonder at the beauty of high latitudes and unsentimental about the outcomes for the region’s indigenous communities. The Magnetic North carries lightly a depth of research that gives an alarming edge to Wheeler’s engrossing histories: scientific consensus of the impact of warming seas on the region’s fragile ecology gives a sobering prospect both for the Arctic, and for other habitable parts of the planet.


The Magnetic North
Sara Wheeler
Vintage Books, 2010

–By James Urquhart


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