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The Magnetic North: Notes From The Arctic Circle

3.73  ·  Rating details ·  409 ratings  ·  63 reviews
A Globe and Mail Best Books of the Year 2011 Title

More than a decade ago, Sara Wheeler traveled to Antarctica to understand a continent nearly lost to myth and lore. In the widely acclaimed, bestselling Terra Incognita, she chronicled her quest to find a hidden history buried in Antarctica's extreme surroundings. Now, Wheeler journeys to the opposite pole to create a defin
Hardcover, 354 pages
Published 2011 by Jonathan Cape (first published 2009)
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Nick Davies
Aug 15, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018
I've maybe read a few too many books in the 'wild, remote, travel writing', so this maybe affected how little/much I was ever going to enjoy this, but in truth this discussion of the author's travels in the Arctic Circle was one of the better books of the aforementioned ilk that I've had the pleasure to read in recent years.

I think Wheeler's merit lies in her slightly difficult to define sense of balance. There's not too much "look at my research, I'm going to tell you *everything* there is to k
Nov 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
A comprehensive examination of some of the hidden aspects of arctic culture, from Alaska to Canada to Russia to Scandinavia. Ms. Wheeler describes historical lore about polar exploration, the stark beauty of many of the desolate areas she visited, and diverting stories about the people she met along the way. She has a captivating style, and this is a great book for fans of travel narratives.
Jun 20, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011
Finally finished it! This was an interesting topic, but a real tedious read. The book chronicles the author's tour of various arctic regions. That's cool, but the writing style is really strained and difficult to get through. Some of word choices are just odd. For instance:

"I camped nearby, on a dot of the ice cap, with a team of atmospheric chemists who spend three or four months each summer in temperatures of -22 F measuring halogens, a nonmetal element group, that are coming off the snowpack
Jul 22, 2011 rated it really liked it
Starting in the far east of Siberia, this is a travelogue with historical flashbacks, as Wheeler moves eastward around the Arctic Circle. Next is a chapter on Alaska, then Canada, Greenland, Svarlbard, Lappland, and the White Sea region of European Russia. We start and end with the ghosts of the Soviet gulags. Wheeler clearly loves her subject, both the land and the rugged people who have chosen to live there. She aims to catalog a rapidly changing part of the world that is the apex of climate c ...more
Although a bit dry, there were things I liked about this book:
- The chapter setup - a chapter for each country or region.
- The balance of travel and history
- The anecdotes and stories within the story
But there was really only one thing that annoyed me:
- The index to the illustrations - so annoying to have this at the start of the book, so that very time you come across an illustration, you have to return to the index to find out what it is. Why do this? Why not have the text at the foot of the i
Alex S
Jul 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
Travels through arctic regions, exploring arctic cultures and the impact of the various nation’s politics on the people and the land.
Dec 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: finished-in-2020
I love Sara Wheeler's writing and approach. Here she combined an evocative sense of place with a nuanced understanding of the often depressing human story. However I was uncomfortable with some of the more cartoonish depictions of the people she meets. To be fair, she does this with a range of people, and to some extent even herself, but it felt very othering ('laugh at the Arctic person') and jolted what I thought was otherwise a sympathetic portrayal of the high northern latitudes. ...more
Jul 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
I have been in a pattern of reading books about the Arctic lately, and this is one of the best. Sara Wheeler has spent a great deal of time in both Antarctica and the Arctic. She divides the Arctic region into separate pie-shaped areas, each radiating out from the north pole. She spends time in each area, beginning in eastern Russia. She circles the pole, stopping in Greenland, the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic, the Scandinavian countries, and ends up in western Russia. In each area she spends tim ...more
Feb 15, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, 2011books
I started reading this on a day when the heat index was 114 degrees. Perfect weather for reading about frostbite and men who were stranded in subzero temperatures eating their own shoe leather. (Heat index got up to 128 that week! Bring on the icebreakers!) It took me much longer to read this book, though – for several reasons. First of all, it was SO GOOD. I didn’t skim or skip any sections. Also, I read this before bed. So it stayed on my nightstand, and I read it roughly 5 pages at a time. An ...more
Jul 22, 2011 added it
I had previously read Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica. I thought that since I really enjoyed the author's book about Antarctica, I would surely enjoy her book about the Arctic Circle. The result? No... not so much.

Terra Incognita had the appeal of covering the topic closest to exploring new worlds without having to go off planet (that, or deep sea exploration). Magnetic North has chapters on multiple countries that have territories within the Arctic Circle and instead of exploration and s
Martin Budd
Dec 30, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book.
Sara Wheeler is one of those people who was born to write. Insightful, well constructed and informative this is a great read. The perfect foil and companion piece to her book on Antartica Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica. If She's not made a Dame soon then there's no justice, although She would probably turn it down.
I really recommend buying the hardback version if you can afford it, wonderful paper and printing, great quality drawings and pictures and it feels lovely to
Fred Rose
Dec 18, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: global-issues, travel
I'm a fan of the North, reading about it and traveling to it (and living in northern US), so I enjoyed this book about traveling on the far fringes of the north. The author is a great travel writer (I also enjoyed her book on Antarctica), with the right dose of history, landscape and characters. The North is changing rapidly both due to cultural influences and climate, and the author captures all that nicely, not in an unrealistic romantic way but matter of factly. ...more
Jul 15, 2011 rated it really liked it
Informative, readable, recommended - I enjoyed her witty prose style, and she covers aspects of the Arctic I haven't seen much about. (Presumably for the reason that getting a visa to visit Chukotka is apparently nigh impossible. Sara Wheeler has quite a reserve of perseverance.) ...more
Nov 11, 2009 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
In the end, I felt that The Magnetic North turned out to be a mixed bag: there are highs here in the broad scope that Wheeler gives herself, which in turn allows her to explore fascinating stories of historical and personal interest. Whether we're reading about Swedish explorers and Norwegian resistance fighters, roadtrips along long Alaskan highways, or Wheeler's struggles to reach Chukchi towns or her admiration for the Sami, there's always something interesting happening in this survey. The b ...more
Joel Cuthbert
Ultimately more scientific than biographic I must admit the more medium rating comes from what I was hoping vs what I found. If you’re interested in a naturalistic and historic view of various arctic areas this book definitely provides a good summary. It is full of rich detail and fact that might lead to some further reading. I was hoping for a more personal encounter, and my prevalence towards the poetic left me looking more forward to the conclusion than enjoying the sights along the journey.
Katherine Liakos
Feb 20, 2021 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed dipping in and out of this book to periodically get transported to the beautiful snowscapes and communities described within it. I'm a Sara Wheeler fan so I may be biased but I found this a fascinating read and admire the level of detail and research she put into this book. Fifth star is lacking purely because I occasionally found it hard to stay engaged (but probably more due to my attention span and lack of patience for detailed historical facts!). ...more
Jul 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Interesting and well written. Some of her comments are quite memorable, such as that condition on Svalbard are so difficult that: "Lichen approaches the problem ... by living so long that it can grow so as slowly as it wants. Some patches on the bird cliff were alive before Britain became an island." ...more
Oct 09, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting read on political and environmental issues facing the Arctic. Despite the fascinating material, unfortunately, I had trouble at times staying on track purely because the sentences were so long they'd become tedious. ...more
Gail Richmond
Mar 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Detailed examination of the cultures and people of the various lands of the Arctic Circle provides in depth analysis of history, politics, and science.
Mar 24, 2017 rated it liked it
3.5 stars
I generally enjoy anything I read about the colder parts of the world, and this was no exception. It was quite different than many of the books I've read lately, though. Rather than being a history of a particular area or person associated with the Arctic, this book reads like a series of journalistic pieces, which, in a sense, they are. Over the course of several years, Wheeler visits various areas around the Arctic. Chapters are set up by region, covering the Russian far east, Alaska, Canada, ...more
Suzanne Auckerman
Feb 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
Her writing is excellent, with vivid imagery, tragedy and humor. She travels to all the Artic lands and tells the story of the native peoples and the environment. It is not a cherry tale, but one worth knowing.
Bookmarks Magazine
Apr 06, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: may-june-2011
Wheeler serves as an engaging and insightful guide through the countries that surge up past the 66th parallel. Reviewers praised her storytelling skills, her nose for obscure and fascinating facts, and her refusal to romanticize the region’s indigenous cultures; and, surprisingly, none objected to her evidence for climate change. The Boston Globe occasionally found the flood of information overwhelming, and others wished that Wheeler had spent more time in the field and less in the library, but ...more
May 18, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I suppose I did not rate this more highly as it was very disturbing. Not her fault and she is a really great writer, but as opposed to Terra Incognito this book is severely depressing. She seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time detailing the Russian atrocities in the arctic zones- east and west. And she freely acknowledged the book she set out to write at the start was not what it evolved into.
I had hoped for more environmental, nature writing and while there was some of that there was ent
Jun 14, 2013 rated it liked it
Another book I was again excited to read expecting stories of adventures exploring the Arctic from a well-seasoned female explorer. I was surprised then when reading the book felt more like watching a fact-filled documentary with each chapter featuring a different country with land in the Arctic circle - covering the history, sociology and environmental science of the area. Each chapter could have been it's own book and it felt like a crash course in understanding climate change and Arctic 'sett ...more
Marceline Smith
Feb 17, 2011 rated it really liked it
Really interesting book about the people who live in the Arctic Circle. It's easy to forget quite how many countries are partly in the Arctic but she visits them all and describes the lives of the inhabitants, visitors and scientific communities. Bit of a coincidence that I ended up reading this around the same time as Frozen Planet was on the BBC - the last couple of episodes cover some of the same ground. The book is way more in depth though and includes lots of personal anecdotes as well as d ...more
May 29, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, travel
This is a terrifying book, and I am not referring to the gulag stories, but to the depiction of a shrinking Artic. The fact that most stuck with me when I closed the cover was that people living furthest from pollution (in the remote Artic) are most affected by it. The build up of toxins in animals, the change in fragile ecosystems due to climate change and pollution, and the erosion of native culture, show up unavoidably in every segment of the story throughout all the author's travels. It is d ...more
Mar 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
I now have to read everything this author has ever written, she is that good. Mary Roach-like but smarter, more adventurous, more attuned to people and places, inner and outer landscapes. The Arctic is still a barely discovered place, and you don't have to go there to feel its power because Wheeler describes it so well.
It is also incredibly humbling and sobering to realize all the pollution that we cause here in the lower latitudes ends up in animals and people there. Wheeler is not an environm
Not the best of Wheeler's books but she sets high standards. This is about the people of the north, and the degradation of their environment, rather than a book of or about exploration (though Nansen and co get a look-in). Wheeler succeeds in conveying the rapid and devastating change that is taking place as a result of our exploitation of the Arctic, but unlike her other books the flow is disrupted by it not being a single journey. Nevertheless, who else has visited so many of the populated par ...more
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Sara Wheeler was brought up in Bristol and studied Classics and Modern Languages at Brasenose College, University of Oxford. After writing about her travels on the Greek island of Euboea and in Chile, she was accepted by the US National Science Foundation as their first female writer-in-residence at the South Pole, and spent seven months in Antarctica.

In her resultant book Terra Incognita: Travels

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