We’re back to the Nordics: this is my fourth read for Annabookbel’s NordicFINDS challenge, and I’ve actually now finished reading five of the ten books I selected for the challenge: handily, this challenge lasts until 6 February, so I have a chance to finish. I might review Jon Kalman Stefansson’s “Heaven and Hell” trilogy in one go, and I don’t think I’ll get the huge book of sagas finished but I have almost got one saga within it done, at least.

This is one of the eight books I bought in September last year when I wandered into the local Oxfam Books to see what there was (out of those eight, I’ve now read three and discarded one, so not doing too badly).

Sara Wheeler – “The Magnetic North: Travels in the Arctic”

(08 September 2021)

At half past three, the sun vanished. It was the cuspy season between white nights and darkness at noon, the period in which the Arctic turns inside out. (p. 1)

In this excellent book, Wheeler makes a circumnavigation of the Arctic regions, from Asian Russia round through America, Canada, Greenland, Svalbard and the lands of the Sámi people back to European Russia, with an excursion into the Arctic Ocean to look at the North-East and North-West Passages. She covers both the history of exploration and displacement of peoples into (Siberia, gold-rushes) and out of (Indigenous populations) the regions and contemporary visits to locations within them. The book was published in 2010 and most of her journeys were from the previous decade; she also details how she met some of the people she visits earlier in her travels.

Although Wheeler is clearly a White British woman explaining Indigenous issues (and climate change and environmental sciences), she does so clearly, compassionately and carefully, including direct quotations and discussions with people where she can. She definitely seeks to highlight the awfulness that has been perpetrated upon people, also celebrating those who have managed to cling on to their traditional ways while embracing useful new technologies. She’s pretty scathing on pollution, too, noting that the people and animals furthest from the highest users of plastics and pesticides are the ones who end up with them embedded in their bodies. Embedded in communities of scientists, she links human and technical stories, and she is a good storyteller. She’s funny, too, often wryly, caught off-guard when all the women whip headscarves out of their string bags on a Russian ferry in order to participate in a service on the way to an Orthodox monastery, or describing the often-failing Arctic explorers as shoe-eaters.

Maps help us round her journey, photographs are printed on the paper pages so a little indistinct (and their captions are in a separate list at the front) and there’s an enticing bibliography. Although now a little out of date, it’s clear on the dangers of climate change and pollution and strong on the treatment of Indigenous peoples (she originally preferred the Antarctic for its emptiness but took to the North when travelling among the Sámi with her small son). It took me a while to read as it’s quite dense and small-printed with 326 pages, but very worthwhile reading.

This was my fourth NordicFINDS read and covered Norway (Svalbard), Denmark (Greenland is one of the three consituent countries that form the Kingdom of Denmark), Sweden and Finland (both in terms of the lands of the Sámi), which means I’ve read something about each of the FINDS.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 2 Book 3/53 – 50 to go.