Aurora: The Mysterious Northern Lights


144 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 1-55054-142-0
DDC 538'.768





Reviewed by William A. Waiser

William A. Waiser is a professor of history at the University of
Saskatchewan, and the author of Saskatchewan’s Playground: A History
of Prince Albert National Park and The New Northwest: The Photographs of
the Frank Crean Expeditions, 1908-1909.


This book is an essential primer for anyone who has stood staring at the
night heavens, transfixed by the spectacular northern lights, more
properly known as the aurora. Written in a lucid, informed style, and
richly illustrated, it is both a practical and a philosophical guide to
the phenomenon.

Aurora describes where the auroral zone is located, how the different
auroral shapes are defined, and when the best time is to witness the
night-time display. It also examines how the aurora was viewed by
various societies over time and where it fit into their folk traditions.
In medieval Europe, for example, the appearance of the lights was
considered a bad omen and struck terror into the hearts of simple
peasants. Inuit shamans, on the other hand, augmented their curative
powers by drawing on the spirits of the aurora. The author also provides
a fascinating account of the centuries-long attempts to explain the
lights, describing how successive generations of scientists grappled
with the auroral mystery and either built on one another’s advances or
simply trashed previous ideas and devised their own theories. She
concludes with a detailed layperson’s description of the physics
behind the aurora.

Two things make this book special. The color photographs throughout the
text leave no doubt as to why the northern lights have mesmerized
countless generations. The author’s own passion for the aurora,
moreover, animates the book and makes for a fascinating story. Even
though the reader learns the reason for the lights, their wondrous
beauty is no less diminished.


Savage, Candace, “Aurora: The Mysterious Northern Lights,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 17, 2024,