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The title of this book suggests another travel book about adventure in the frozen north, but Sara Wheeler mixes her tales of her own travels with some history of polar exploration and a serious examination of the impact of visitors and of those who wish to exploit the Arctic's natural resources on the region and its people. Rather than setting off on another expedition to reach the North Pole, she travels around bits of the Arctic divided between different countries and governments, including Chukotka (Russia), Alaska (USA), Canada, Greenland, Svalbard (Norway) and Lapland (Russia and Scandinavia). There is a huge amount of material in the book but Wheeler organises and presents it in a very readable, accessible style.
The writings in the book cover several trips over a few years. Wheeler arranged to stay with locals in many places and interviewed a range of people, as well as travelling as part of various expeditions. Her findings reflect equally badly on capitalist and Communist/former Communist governments, as many of the people she meets talk about the problems with poverty, alcohol, poor diet (not improved by the introduction of foods imported from elsewhere). Also, increased fears about environmental problems and global warming inform Wheeler's writing and the discussions she has with interviewees.
Another thread through the book is the history of previous Arctic explorers, the interests, the frustrations, the dangers. Modern exploration is done in quite big groups - Wheeler comments on how crowded the present day Arctic can feel in comparison to the image. This history woven into the book was also interesting.
I also enjoyed Wheeler's accounts of her own travels, especially the stories of taking each of her sons with her on different trips. Baby Reg was still breastfeeding, although I thought Wheeler was a bit ungrateful to a man who suggested a method of keeping out the cold while doing so using tinfoil. Reg travels on his own wooden sledge wrapped in calf pelts, and in a sling snuggled up to his mother. He was six by the time this book was written and is obviously quite proud of his adventures as an infant. Later she took her older wildlife-loving son Wilf, aged 10, on an Arctic cruise ship where he gets involved in helping the crew. He is already aware enough of the hazards of global warming to worry that he will not be able to return with his own son.
I did find a couple of aspects of this book's presentation very annoying. There are 45 black and white pictures interspersed through the text of the book, none of them captioned - what they are of and photo credits etc are detailed in a 3 page List of Illustrations at the start of the book. There are also 11 pages of endnotes, mostly detailing sources for quotations in the text, but there is no indication in the text that there is an endnote. This may be so that the non-academic reader is not interrupted by little numbers indicating something to look up, but I feel a need to read any notes in conjunction with the main text and this really irritated me.
Despite my quibbles, this book has lots of interesting stories and food for thought here, and is highly recommended. I would probably rate it 4.5 stars if this option was available here.
This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk
Despite the subtitle, this is rather more than just another travel book - a history of Arctic exploration combined with a study of the impact of exploration and exploitation on the people who live in the region.
Format: Paperback 349 pages
Publisher: Vintage May 2010
ISBN: 978 0099 51688 0
RRP: £8.99; available for £5.99 in paperback at Amazon as of 25 September 2011, Kindle £5.69