Sara Wheeler's The Magnetic North: Notes From the Arctic Circle (FSG, 315 pages, $26) quite literally describes a circle: Wheeler—a London-based journalist—travels counterclockwise, in pie-shaped wedges of map around the northern pole, all the way from the hardscrabble, reindeer-dominated Chukchi lands of Asian Russia, through Alaska and Canada and Greenland and Norway back to the muttering isolation of Russian monks on the Solovki archipelago. It is also, in many ways, a quite extraordinary book.
While the nearest point of comparison would be Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez's epic 1986 meditation on the meaning and draw of the great white north, The Magnetic North finds its true forebear in the writings of legendary New Yorker contributor John McPhee. Fifteen years ago, in Terra Incognita, her book on Antarctica, she had declared herself prejudiced against the "complicated, life-infested North." But Wheeler now shares with McPhee an abiding journalistic interest in—and bemusement with—the fragmented and all too human, alongside a deep lyrical sense of history, the esoteric, and the often absurd sublimity and implacability of landscape.
She also shares McPhee's meandering, often palimpsestic paragraphs and penchant for unlikely description. At one point she describes the sky in the morning as "striated, like bacon"; a researcher is said to "return every summer, like a tern."
Wheeler does, however, have a tendency to insert her own opinions and ideals into the story, often following up deadpan ironies with too-easy morals, or writing with an engaged, personal tone that occasionally leads the reader too much by the hand. In particular, she documents the various incursions of white resource-seekers into various points on the Circle with undisguised disdain that, however understandable, amounts to a failure of tone in a book so devoted to clear-eyed description and narrative.
Fundamentally, however, The Magnetic North is a book of stories in the revisionist Kipling mode—modern, corrupted adventures in some of the last places still ceded, in their alien inaccessibility, to dreams: the story, for example, of Tété-Michel Kpomassie, an African who escaped to his vision of Greenland in 1981 surprised to find "a baby smothered by drunken parents, a meal of rabid dog," and a conversation conducted between squats over the ice. Or, say, a research scientist who fought off a polar bear with a frying pan, a displaced Inuit hunter who worries that "the more I think as an individual, the less I feel I exist," a Lappish reindeer herder who believes that "God had created all the animals except the wolf, who was begotten by the devil."
Up north, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, "everything dissolves into myths." Wheeler's book—in its many moments documenting the wreckage of the old—leads one as well to the hope that this eternal frontier doesn't also dissolve into diamond mines, north-traveling mercury and PCBs, climbing climes and holes in the air itself—or melt, quite simply, into the sea.
GO: Sara Wheeler reads from The Magnetic North at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Wednesday, March 16. Free.