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3.9 out of 5 stars
3.9 out of 5 stars
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on 13 July 2010
Sara Wheeler's previous book about the Antarctic was a revelation and lived on in the mind for many years after reading it. Ten years - and two children - on 'The Magnetic North: Travels in the Arctic' finds her at the opposite end of the world and is, if anything, better than its predecessor. The book describes a series of journeys, with and without children, that Sara Wheeler takes across and around the vast and complex region that is the Arctic. She excels in describing the complexities of life there and, while never being anything other than compassionately clear-eyed, is especially eloquent in bearing witness to the appalling damage done to the way of life of the native people of the Arctic region by the many nations that lay claim to sovereignty over it. Wheeler's writing is clear, concise and often wryly funny. Overall, a terrific read.
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on 7 August 2010
This is more than a travel book about Sara Wheeler's extended visits to Chukotka and other Russian territories, Alaska, Artic Norway, Canada, Greenland, Svarlbard (Spitzbergen) and Lappland.

The Arctic of this book is not only a disintegrating home to native people's, nor just the source of 25 % of the world óil reserves and much of its mineral wealth, nor just a cauldron of scientific investigation into global climate change, nor just a massive ice shield with its own history of endeavour and of popular reporting of these endeavours, nor just a source of inspiration to writers, artists, filmmakers and naturalists. It is all of these framed in lucid, colourful, personal and yet unsentimental style.

Her experiences of her visits, sometimes accompanied by one of her children, are enriched by extensive reference to the history and literature about the region. The stories about the people she meets and the characters that are important in Artic history leave you gagging for more. She very often stays for extended periods of time at scientific bases or at oil depots or travels with truckers on the ice roads or with nomadic people - she describes attempting to breast feed her baby whilst it was strapped to a reindeer like the Sami do. She empathises with those characters that were sympathetic to their environment - writers, like Mowat - film makers, like Flahery - atmopheric scientists, like Jack Dibb - artists like Rockwell Kent - or people who mapped the ice cap, like Gino Watkins who pioneered the jet refuelling stations in Greenland or James Rae of NorthWest Passage fame. She respects some recognised explorers like Nansen but has no time for those who set out "to conquer the artic like the fame seeking Peary or the arrogant , incompetent British admiral Franklin.

She pulls no punches in describing the disintegration and degradadation of the native culture throughout the Arctic Region. "Wherever the state intervened in the Canadian Actic, which was almost everywhere, the mechanics of the system moved in an aritrary , aimless fashion like the hands of clock disconnected from the face. When it comes to protecting Arctic people, no other country tried so hard , agonised so much and stumbled so many times as the Canadians. Russia had not agonised. It had effectively kicked the Chutchi onto the rubbish heap of history. America had thrown money at the problem".

She is strong on the theory of unintended consequences. "Watkins thought he was doing right (in pioneering crucial refuelling stations for US-Europen airroutes in Greenland), but technology failed to reveal what was going to happen when hundreds of thousands of contrails disspolved in Arctic skies - just as it failed to reveal that the nurses accompanying X-ray machines bought killer viruses (to the Innuit) with them or that prophulactic tooth extractoin would lead to a a full scale evacuation of a Canadian scintific base".

She returns again and again to the theme that conditions in the Artic that could lead to major climate change were more significant than she expected. And she reports extensively on the race to extract natural resources of oil and minerals that continues to dominate the Agenda. Her recounts the work of many of the individuals in the large numbers scientific teams active throughout the Arctic. The motivation of the scientists, it should be added, is qualified by Jack Dibb working on the impact of bromine oxide and other halogens on the troposhere ( following the work proving the impact of fluorocarbons on the stratosphere) when he is quoted as saying "This one could make us famous if its true".

But essentially it is a masterpeice of Arctic record in the 21st century.
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on 15 May 2011
This book is a giant leap from her book about the Antarctic, Terra Incognita, which I found good but not gripping. However The Magnetic North, not an easy book to skim through, kept me hooked to the last page. Sara Wheeler's language is exquisite and her research knowledge taught me things about the Arctic I didn't being to know, despite having ready quite widely on the subject. The history background, Stalin, the wars, were not only interesting but written in such a way it painted the full picture. If you are interested in the Arctic, its history and its people read it.
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on 27 August 2012
A truly fascinating read which opens your eyes to the changing world we live in. This book tells us how fragile our earth is and how how tough it is for the people living in those extreme climes of the frozen North. Sara Wheeler writes in a wonderful engaging manner that is both descriptive and emotional. Showing the adaptation of human nature to survive the ever changing conditions of the Polar regions makes us, the reader, realise the delicate balance between environmental issues and commercialism.
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on 11 June 2012
Sara Wheeler's book is a compilation of a multitude of facts, past and present, sprinkled with a few drops of analysis and dotted with even fewer black and white photos. This compilation is made up of two third of research about the Arctic region and one third of real-life travels. The overall result looks like one of those packed-to-bursting suitcases that tourists take on holidays: too much stuff that is of no use for the purpose...
There is no sense of adventure in Sara's story and no common thread along the journey on which to hold in order to make sense of it.
But the reader will find plenty of history about the region and its explorers, a little of the already quite well known and depressing situation in which the natives of the Arctic live and some up-to-date info on climate change.
It's not a book about travelling though...
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on 19 November 2013
Fascinating to be taken by the writer to places that you see on a map but have little chance of visiting.
The content is well researched and put together and gives a much wider and historical perspective to the Arctic area.
My only reservation would be that I wanted to spend time in the personal company of indigenous people where they still maintained traditional lifestyles.
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on 11 August 2010
Magnetic North has lots of fascinating detail and up-to-date assessment on the various pressures at work on the Arctic peoples and topography. It's a good, sound, informative read. However, Sara Wheeler's style doesn't always flow too well (lots of distracting bracketed asides....like this one) and there is none of the poetry and inspirational vision of Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams. Read Wheeler for the current scene, but read Lopez to see what a great writer can bring to the idea of North.
Ted Eames
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on 29 October 2014
An update on life and work in the Arctic, with an interesting array of characters and processes, plus thoughts on climate change and reflections on life.

Good read from a warm and comfortable environment.
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on 18 February 2015
A good read and educational as well
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on 23 June 2010
Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Sara Wheeler's two previous books I was fairly disappointed with this one. Previous strengths such as the author's key involvement in the text and historical references don't seem to really work this time around and, like one of the other reviewers, I found the text overly flowery and elaborate plus I felt the overall tone was slightly mawkish. Despite all this there are good moments and I did learn some interesting things, probably worth reading if you're interested in the area and if you are a particularly big fan but not a book I would recommend otherwise.
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