Monday, February 28, 2011

Sara Wheeler’s The Magnetic North

I’ve found it difficult to approach writing about this book, and not because I hated it. What Sara Wheeler does well, she does very well. Much of her descriptive language, particularly about Alaska, is fresh and lyrical. Her sense of outrage and melancholy about melting icecaps and warming seas is contagious. This is a book that will doubtless have an effect on perceptions of the Arctic, its fragile environment and its threatened species. The notices have been uniformly glowing and reviewers have also noted Wheeler’s humor and ability to summarize scientific research with panache.

I don’t disagree with those reviews insofar as they concern Wheeler’s humor and literary style. But my own impression of The Magnetic North, which grew steadily as I read, is that Wheeler might better have stuck to what she does well, which is travel writing and delightful potted biographies of polar explorers, rather than taking on issues of the people who live in the circumpolar zone all year round. Wheeler is fine when it comes to describing scientists who hunker into labs and barracks for months out of the year. In scenes reminiscent of those at McMurdo in Antarctica (Terra Incognita), she gives amusing portraits of the men and women of the Arctic programs sponsored by the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. She clearly feels at home in often cramped quarters and trying conditions.

She’s less adept at describing the lives of people who live full-time above the Arctic Circle, some of them indigenous, others not. Her time with them is brief, accidental, or purchased (some are hired guides). She tends to rely on writings about indigenous people rather than investigating their own writing about themselves. Consequently her attitude often comes across as condescending and pitying. To me it smacks far too much of the colonialism that she decries so often.

Arriving in Iqaluit, her first experience of the Canadian Arctic, en route to a geological station, she writes “They should have called it Fattytown, not Iqaluit. Obesity was a sad symbol of cultural collision. It represented exile, metaphorically speaking. Cut off from a traditional diet of marine foodstuffs and berries, people had ballooned into grotesque parodies of the white man. Canadians had tried hard to put things right, but they couldn’t turn the clock back.”

Leaving aside the obvious point that Inuit are also Canadians, this is an offensive way to characterize an entire populace and unfair, too. Obesity is on the rise in every Western Country. In fact, England has the highest obesity rates in Europe and the West Midlands is judged to be the most obese place in the EU, according to a study reported in December, 2010 in the Independent.  

Are the overweight people of the West Midlands “grotesque parodies of the white man?” Would Wheeler not take some flack in her native England for characterizing Birmingham as Fattytown?

This is a particularly egregious example of fly-in/fly-out travel writing––generalized observations about the exotic laced with ignorance disguised as wit. Elsewhere in The Magnetic North, the native peoples are more remarkable for their absence. In the same chapter on the Canadian Arctic, we hear a great deal about the film Nanook of the North and Farley Mowat’s books, but little about the still-continuing culture, art-making, and spirituality of the Inuit and the strength and resilience of many communities. Noah, a “bear monitor,” employed with the Canada-Nunavut Geoscience Office, is one of the few natives with a voice. To him is given a few pages that hint at what Wheeler missed. He says, “I feel we at least have a voice now, and some political power, so we can express our position.” Noah is a blogger on the site Igloo Talk. This is a rare mention of agency on the part of indigenous peoples in the Arctic, and welcome.

A great weakness in Wheeler’s book is her puzzling lack of attention to the scientific and cultural work that indigenous people of all the circumpolar countries are doing, separately and together in multicountry organizations, to document and respond to climate change. Obviously climate change affects the entire globe and it’s reasonable that scientific organizations based in the U.S. and U.K. are up in the Arctic taking salinity measurements and monitoring the meltdown of Greenland. The developed world is responsible for this climate crisis after all. But Wheeler shows little or no interest in recording what native peoples are doing, as scientists, researchers, and politicians. She doesn’t mention the many exhibits, books, and conferences that take place among Arctic peoples and the coalitions and sharing of knowledge across state boundaries.

Here I want to mention at least one resource about indigenous people and climate change in the Arctic, the Snowchange project, based in Finland. Here’s a description of the work they do, from their website. 

Snowchange is a not-for-profit independent cooperative organisation with headquarters in Finland. The international community network of Snowchange spans all eight Arctic states. Most of the member communities and families are from the various Arctic Indigenous Nations and other subsistence communities.

Our work involves working with the various Northern areas and peoples on the topics of ecological, especially climatic and weather changes from the scientific and traditional knowledge point of view. In addition to the community documentation Snowchange as well works to advance local Indigenous knowledge in the global context and advance decolonisation of the North in the face of rapid changes.

The scientific priority of Snowchange is currently in the following areas of the North:
- The Saami territories of Finland, Russia, Sweden and Norway
- Republic of Sakha-Yakutia, Murmansk and Republic of Karelia in Russian Federation
- Savo, North Karelia and Kainuu, Finland
- Iceland and Faroe Islands
- British Columbia, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, Canada
- Alaska, USA

In addition to the operations in all Arctic countries (United States / Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Greenland and Faroe Islands (Denmark), Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russian Federation) Snowchange has partners in Bolivia, Nepal, Ghana and New Zealand.

I have one of the Snowchange Project’s books, from 2004, sent me by its editor, Elina Helander, a Sámi reindeer owner and a scientist at the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland. Snowscapes, Dreamscapes is almost 600 pages long and includes voices from North America, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Greenland, Fennoscandia, and many parts of Russia. In addition to research articles, there are photographs, poems, artworks. It is out of print, sadly. For those who would wish to know more about the people of the Arctic, it is the kind of work we need more of.

Friday, February 25, 2011


A friend from Stockholm is flying up to Tromsø, Norway for a conference and mentioned this exhibit. I wish I could see it—sadly, it will be over before I arrive in March. I love the poster. This is Nansen, by the way, one of the coolest of the Polar explorers and a Norwegian national hero.

It’s cheering to see the centuries-old Sámi and Inuit knowledge of snow and ice being recognized as contributing to Arctic exploration.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Sara Wheeler and Johan Turi

I’ve been reading Sara Wheeler’s new book, The Magnetic North, about her circumpolar travels in the Arctic. I’ve been a fan of Wheeler’s since I read Travels in a Thin Country, about Chile. I thought her narrative about Antarctica¸ Terra Incognita, was a superb piece of travel writing.

I’ll have more to say about The Magnetic North when I finish it. It’s certainly an ambitious project and a rather magical journey around the top of the world.

But today I’d like to look at her chapter on the Sámi, “Four Legs, Good,” and make some specific comments on one section of it, the pages that deal with Johan Turi (1854-1936) and his book, Muittalus sámid birra. Turi is often on my mind because I’ve done so much research on Emilie Demant Hatt, the Danish artist and ethnographer who played a large role in shaping and publishing Turi’s book about his people. I had an essay published last fall in Scandinavian Studies (“How Muittalus Samid Birra was Created”) about their publishing collaboration and will be delivering a paper on that subject at a seminar next month in Tromsø, Norway. The seminar is in honor of the 100th anniversary of the publication of Turi’s book in its first Danish-Sami bilingual edition and the speakers will include Mikael Svonni, a professor at the University of Tromsø who’s preparing a new Sámi version of M.S.B., and Tom DuBois, who is retranslating the book into English.

I was glad at first to see that Sara Wheeler had included material on Johan Turi in her travel book. After all, M.S.B. has played a significant role, both literary and visual, in Sámi culture. It’s a marvelous narrative and the voice, even in the Danish-to-English translation from the 1930s, sings with poetry. But in continuing to read I found myself confused by Wheeler’s choice to introduce us to Turi through the eyes of the writer Axel Munthe. Munthe was a Swedish psychiatrist who lived an exciting life and traveled frequently, particularly in Italy. He eventually married a British aristocrat and settled in England. His memoir, The Story of San Michele, from 1929, was a bestseller in English. Wheeler quotes from this memoir in describing Munthe’s visit to Johan Turi up in Swedish Lapland.

As soon as I read about Munthe sitting down with Turi and his wife Ellekare, I was suspicious. Johan Turi was a bachelor (although he apparently had at least one child out of wedlock). It was said that he couldn’t attract a wife because of his baldness. He complained about his unmarried state to Emilie Demant Hatt, hinting that she was the one for him. Demant Hatt and Turi’s friendship has often been discussed in print, with some people assuming they were lovers. After researching Demant Hatt for the last decade, I think this is unlikely. There was an age difference of almost twenty years and they came from very different backgrounds. Yet their attachment as friends was real—and complex.

I was further confused in continuing to read the section in Wheeler’s book by the mention of Turi’s “granddaughter, Ristin.” Johan Turi’s brother, Aslak Turi, had a daughter named Ristin—she’s mentioned in Demant Hatt’s book, Med lapperne i højfeldet (“With the Lapps in the High Mountains”). I decided to look at Axel Munthe’s memoir to see what he’d said, and found that Munthe had indeed visited the Turi family. However the Turi he describes seems to be Johan Turi’s father, Olaf. I knew when I read that “Old Turi” had five sons, a thousand reindeer, and spoke Swedish very well it couldn’t be Johan Turi. Olaf was wealthy and a well-known man in the district. His son Johan Turi was widely known not to be all that interested in reindeer-herding; he subsisted as a wolf-hunter and guide. Johan and his father have been conflated here in Wheeler’s recounting.

I think the original source of Wheeler’s mistake might have come from the website of an expedition that took place in 2007 in Finnmark, one that was organized by Adam Munthe, the grandson of Axel Munthe. This expedition, by dogsled, was meant to bring awareness to issues of global warming and the Sámi reindeer herders. But the account on the site of the relationship between Axel Munthe and Johan Turi contains a few errors. While it’s quite possible Johan Turi guided Axel Munthe on his travels in Lapland (Turi acted as guide to many tourists and wrote an amusing book about one of them, Frank Hedges Butler), Turi wouldn’t have invited Munthe to his tent and introduced him to his wife and numerous children—he didn’t have them.

Adam Munthe’s account of his 2007 expedition also includes a diary entry of finding his way to Turi’s house near Torneträsk. “April 4th 2007. Today we travelled from beneath Cokcu (the Holy Mountain) to Lahtteluokta, where, at the beginning of the 20th century Johan Turi lived and wrote the first book ever written by a Sami. My grandfather was one of those who helped him get it published, and about one hundred years ago they made a journey together through parts of Sapmi where Turi showed the famous physician, ‘real things that should be known by all people.’”

Not quite right. First of all, after years of talking about wanting to write a book about the Sámi, Johan Turi sat down for six weeks in the fall of 1908 in a mining shack near the railway station at Torneträsk with Demant Hatt, who spurred him on to write his memories and impressions in a number of small notebooks. Demant Hatt then took the notebooks back to Denmark where she spent two years transcribing them with the help of scholars in Finno-Urgric, and translating them into Danish. The bilingual book was published with the financial support of Kiruna’s mining director, Hjalmar Lundbohm, who also helped Turi construct his house in the mountains in 1912.

Although Turi’s book wasn’t the first book to come out in Sámi—there had been bibles and other religious texts—it was the first literary text. It made both Turi and Demant Hatt well-known and it was soon translated to German and Swedish (and eventually other languages). The English-language edition finally appeared in 1931 from Jonathan Cape as Turi’s Book of Lapland.  I don’t think there’s any evidence that Axel Munthe had anything to do with its publication in the U.K.

I know as a travel writer myself that it’s terribly easy to get something half right. However, there’s quite a bit of research on Johan Turi in English, given his fame, and some things might have been better to check. Adam Munthe’s errors are not Wheeler’s. Still, I question the use of Axel Munthe as a reliable source on the Sámi. While I applaud Wheeler’s intent in writing about Johan Turi, I wish that the story had been factually correct and that other sources had been cited.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Lapland Express

Carl-Henrik Berg, a Swedish friend and intrepid librarian outside of Stockholm, sends me this film clip of a 1911 train trip through the Swedish mountains, from Narvik to Riksgrensen. This particular train route, one of the world's most northerly, was constructed with enormous labor in the first years of the 20th century, primarily to bring iron ore from the rich mines of Kiruna and Malmberget to the ice-free harbor at Narvik in Norway. As soon as the route opened, however, hikers and tourists began to make use of the train. The Swedish Touring Club (STF) constructed huts and hostels along the route. The Sami people, too, began to take the train into Kiruna from their mountain homes. The Danish painter and ethnographer, Emilie Demant Hatt, first came to Lapland in 1904 on the so-called Lapland Express. And it was on an iron ore train that she met the Sami wolf-hunter and author Johan Turi, thus beginning a decades-long friendship.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Harvard Review Online, from the Archives

A few years ago The Harvard Review published my essay, "Lapponia, " about the death of Descartes in Stockholm one freezing day in winter and about the cross-dressing, soon-to-be-abdicating Queen Christina. HR now has an online presence and has just begun a new feature, "From the Archives," showcasing prose selections from the past ten years. I'm delighted that "Lapponia" is one of two historical essays in this issue. Read it at Harvard Review Online .

Friday, February 4, 2011

Swedish Name Changes

The New York Times published a fascinating article the other day about Swedish couples changing their last names when they married. Andersson met Karlsson but who wants to be "Andersson-Karlsson" these days? Swedes are going back to earlier family names or just making names up.

The article went on:

"In most cases, couples adopt a new name for the same reasons the Wetterlunds did: to rebel against the hegemony of traditional Swedish surnames ending in “-son” — Johansson, Andersson and Karlsson being the most common. And it does not end there. Of the 100 most common names here, 42 end in “-son.”

"Sweden abounds in names ending in “-son” because of an old Nordic practice, before hereditary surnames were introduced, of using the father’s first name, and the suffix “-son” for a son, or “-dotter” for a daughter"

As someone who changed her own name ten years ago from Wilson to Sjoholm, I have long been interested in Scandinavian naming practices and learned a great deal about them when I was traveling in the maritime countries of the North Atlantic. I wrote about some of these practices in The Pirate Queen, a travel-history of women and the sea.

My father's Swedish grandparents were Svanssons (he was adopted by the Wilsons), so another -son ending wasn't very inspirational. I chose instead a Swedish place-based name, Sjoholm, meaning sea island (or lake island). Now I find I was right in line with contemporary Swedish practice.

Swedish Crime fiction Seattle Event Feb 7 Elliott Bay

This event may be of interest to readers in Seattle interested in
crime fiction

Before there was Stieg Larsson, there was Leif GW Persson.

In Sweden, Persson is considered the "grand old man" of crime fiction.
Since his first book was published in 1979, Persson has been among the
foremost crime novelists in Sweden. Now he has finally been published
in English.

Between Summer's Promise and Winter's End (Pantheon) is a story that
spirals around the assassination of the "prime minister" (not named in
the novel, but understood to be Olof Palme) on the night of February
28, 1986.

The Boston Globe has called it “unquestionably the best Swedish crime
novel I've read so far.”

Please join us on Wednesday, February 9 at 7:00 p.m. at Elliott Bay
Book Company for a reading, talk and conversation with Persson's
translator, Paul Norlen.