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Sarah Wheeler in an image from the book
Sarah Wheeler in an image from the book

Review: Non-fiction

Northern exposure Add to ...

Toward the end of this book, Sara Wheeler describes a recent visit to the medieval Solovki monastery in Siberia, located on an island in the White Sea near the Arctic Circle. Solovki "had functioned as a dumping ground for undesirables for centuries," she writes, while evoking both a grim today of true-believer tour guides and a horrendous yesterday of massacres, rapes, tortures and mutilations.

The guide tells her: "Solovki is the place where faith triumphs over death." And Wheeler herself almost follows this tack, insisting that the human spirit lived in the quiet chants in the churches and the muttered prayers in the hermitages. People "plucked new life out of death, as they always had," she writes. "It was easier to believe in when you weren't tied to a tree [a cross]or starving in an igloo, but it was a kind of humanity that eluded articulation, and I had sensed it everywhere in the muddled and lovable Arctic."

If this sounds sentimental, rest assured: The Magnetic North is clear-eyed and tough-minded. "Every nation devastates native cultures," Wheeler writes. "Russians did it with bureaucracy. Americans with money, Canadians (in the end) with kindness. Swedes and Finns did it with chainsaws that chopped down forests. And everyone did it with booze and syphilis."

The Magnetic North is a complement to Wheeler's Terra Incognita: Travels around Antarctica. But where she built her 1999 work around a seven-month expedition, here she draws on a number of journeys to different Arctic regions, among them Alaska, the Canadian archipelago and Greenland. The structural challenge is larger. And Wheeler warns early on that we should anticipate no coherent picture: "There are no answers, only stories and irreducible difficulties."

For Wheeler, the Arctic "is an image of the real world in all its degradation and beauty, and it is intimately connected to us - to our future, our crises, and our dreams." Shorn of the narrative energy provided by a single journey, and rejecting polemic as reductive and simplistic, she keeps us reading with a mix of detail, humour and acerbic commentary.

This is a book for people who love sentences. In the section on Asian Russia, Wheeler describes a young man named Yuri, who chattered through an entire 20-minute bus ride, "apologizing all the time for his 'bad' English while careering forward into exciting hinterlands of syntax." Not long afterward, she meets a well-built young man who tells her he admires Arnold Schwarzenegger and asks if she knows him: "I floundered as he pumped my hand, crushing a few unimportant bones."

While taking us around Alaska, Wheeler writes of the relentless Robert Peary, noting that he is probably the most unpleasant man in the annals of polar exploration, "a hotly contested field." And in Greenland, the author's eye for detail alights on Hans Egede, the 18th-century Norwegian missionary who "kick-started mass conversion when he translated 'daily bread' as 'daily seal.' "

Wheeler tells us that in Greenland, the outstanding French explorer Jean Malaurie lived in an igloo, learned to hunt and mastered the local dialect. He even ate kiviaq, a rotted and fermented guillemot (seabird) dish, but "nonetheless drew the line at oruneq, a gourmet concoction of warmed partridge droppings."

Also in Greenland, the author regales us with the story of Gino Watkins, a young Englishman who led an overwintering expedition. Some of the men took Inuit mistresses while others disapproved. "The army man and surveyor Martin Lindsay," she tells us, "expressed outrage on practical as well as moral grounds: all winter he had a woman climbing over him to get at Watkins in the bunk above."

Wheeler pulls no punches anywhere, but she is most cutting during her visit to Solovki. Not long ago, she tells us, Vladimir Putin visited the monastery. He lauded the contributions of Orthodox Christianity, declared that all people were equal before God and insisted that Russia had always guaranteed that equality. Writes Wheeler: "Now Solovki really had heard it all." Later, she quotes a tour guide explaining that early in the 1920s, during a famine, Lenin sent requisition teams to carry away medieval icons and jewels, which "were going to be sold abroad to buy bread." Next sentence: "And the pigs of the island flew."

Circumnavigating the Arctic and meeting its people, Wheeler ranges through exploration history and climate change and inexorable acculturation. That she emerges with this sparkling book is a triumph of British stoicism - and style.

Ken McGoogan, author of four books about Arctic exploration, recently published How the Scots Invented Canada. He sails as a lecturer with Adventure Canada.

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