The Last Imaginary Place Paperback – Jan 1 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
The myth of the Arctic as an untouched wilderness penetrated only by the most intrepid of adventurers and populated by primitive peoples who had to be tamed along with their wilderness takes a beating in this refreshing primer from McGhee, the curator of Arctic Archeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Coupling personal memoir with a broad historical overview, McGhee's book offers a more realistic view of the present-day Arctic and shows that, far from being cut off from the rest of the world, the Arctic peoples traded with their southern neighbors for thousands of years and have both influenced and been influenced by these contacts. McGhee draws on his 30 years experience as an archeologist to demonstrate that large-scale human migrations have occurred around the entire North Polar region, particularly in the past 2000 years, and that the current Inuit, Sammi, Nenets, Chukchi and other Arctic peoples have long histories that can be documented archeologically and through oral and written records. McGhee devotes an entire chapter to the fascinating history of contact between the Vikings and the Inuit in the North Atlantic, which occurred over a period of 500 years, until circa 1400. A later chapter describes the exploitation of the marine mammals living around the Spitsbergen islands. While not comprehensive, McGhee's book is an excellent introduction to the Arctic's history, peoples and contemporary political issues.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
McGhee writes in this compelling account, "the sea ice and the midnight sun, the whales, walrus, reindeer, the flaring aurora, and the endless winter night are viewed only as scenes and players in the human history of the polar zone." He presents this history as a part of what he calls the global history of human endeavor, exploring such themes as the Arctic in ancient thought; the role fur traders, whalers, and ivory hunters who benefit from an extreme range of seasonal variation; and the rapport between hunter and the hunted. He recounts life in Arctic Siberia, Vikings and Arctic farmers, life among the Inuit people, ice and death on the Northeast Passage, gold mining, and the early exploration of Hudson Bay. He believes that the Arctic is not so much a region as a dream--what he sees as a dream of a unique attractive world, the last imaginary place on earth. An archaeologist who spent 30 years there, the author lets his love for the region shine through on every page. George Cohen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Stylistically the book is impressive as well. McGhee speaks of Greely and Franklin ways that would spark interest in someone who had no interest in Arctic history. There are many summaries of dramatic events throughout the book, keeping his "human history" consistently interesting. The book, while being comprised of stories, is based wholly on research and historical record, which gives it a textbook feel from time to time, but even the pictures and maps (which, to my amazement, are completely left out of many Arctic-related books) give the book (and stories) a lot of life. In comparison to something like Frozen in Time which was much more science-based, yet easy for anyone to understand, The Last Imaginary Place is another account of a much more extensive history by an author who is extremely passionate about his work. This particular characteristic is not uncommon in today's Arctic writers (though, in previous decades/centuries, much of the accounting of expeditions was BORING).
In the end, this book could have turned out horribly dry and boring, it could have been a neutral history book with no particular feeling involved...instead, The Last Imaginary Place is a book you want to read every page of. There are priceless tidbits of information throughout the book, and from the pages about the Ice Age to Thule to the Vikings and on to 19th & 20th century exploration, there's nothing that can be flipped through without reading...to do that would be to miss something not only important, but something that would be enjoyable to read.
McGhee begins with a study of the geology of the Arctic, noting that it was geology that proved that the Earth was older and more dynamic than religionists had argued. The ideal place that documented that fundamental fact was the concept of the Ice Age, and the data demonstrating that was found in the Arctic. He comments, "the fact that we think of the `Ice Age' as an established fact of prehistory is one of the triumphs of nineteenth-century science. For most of that century, science and theology fought an extended battle over the nature of the world and mankind" (p. 12). That realization finally took hold when Arctic explorers brought back evidence supporting it.
From there McGhee proceeds chronologically through the history of the Arctic, focusing successively on the hunter-gatherer tribes that claimed the region as their own, Viking incursion into Greenland and other parts of the northland, the Inuit and their evolution over time, the search for the fables Northwest Passage, and the quest for the pole, and the European quest for power in the geopolitical sweepstakes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The expression of a unique history of an exotic Arctic region makes "The Last Imaginary Place" a wonderful reading experience. It is a very fine introduction to the history of the region and its place in Western Civilization.
I also was very impressed by how he integrated Russian and Soviet history with Canadian, British and Scandinavian history. Canada was established partly as a result of the initiative of the Muscovy Company. He gives all the details, which are fascinating. The sections on the exploration of the Siberian Arctic are gripping. Both the Pomors, or the Russian maritime peasants, and Europeans played important roles in this. So often works are written strictly within one nation's history that to see them together, acting and reacting to each other, is great.
McGhee is an archaeologist and is really able to bring the deep human history of the Arctic to life. He shows that for the Inuit and other peoples, the Arctic was not some wasteland but a welcoming place that held so many animals as to provide a good life for the people. In contrast, the macho posturing of 19th century British explorers is lightly but firmly put in its place.
If you're interested in the Arctic, this book is definitely worth your time.
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