January 23, 2008

Review: In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea
by Nathaniel Philbrick
278 pages

Like the Donner Party, the men of the Essex could have avoided disaster, but this does not diminish the extent of the men's sufferings, or their bravery and
extraordinary discipline.

I'm not a fan of non-fiction generally. It takes me twice as long to read it than fiction and it is usually boring to boot. At least that is what I used to say. I am slowly being drawn to it as I come across well written, interesting books, like this one. It still took me twice as long to read it but it was certainly not boring.

In the Heart of the Sea is the story of the whaleship Essex, the tale that was the inspiration for Moby Dick. The Essex was a Nantucket whaleship that was attacked by a whale. After it sank, the crew of 20 men lived in three small whaleboats, slowly starving to death, then sustaining themselves on the bodies of their dying shipmates. They were 93 days at sea before the 8 surviving crew members were rescued.

Philbrick's writing is very well done. And his knowledge of Nantucket history and its booming whaling industry in the early 1800s are immense. This is clearly his field of expertise. His passion for it shines through the text. But I do have one complaint about the writing. At some point someone must have advised Philbrick to interrupt his quotes, like in this example: "The ship rode over them as buoyantly as a seagull," Nickerson claimed, "without taking onboard one bucket of water." In a book full of original source quotes, every single quote is written in this manner. It's not bad English but it does become a distraction about halfway through. I found myself looking for an uninterrupted quote. It is like the familiar quark of a friend or family member. Like the way I play with my hair when I get nervous. He may not be aware that he does it to such a degree. Or he may do it on purpose to add action to the writing. All I know is that it is so abundant that I couldn't help but to notice it and it took something away from the story to be so aware of this tendency.

The story is very well researched. There are 40 pages of Notes and 12 pages of Select Bibliography. Philbrick compares the Essex crew's experience to many many similar experiences at each point. He doesn't just tell what happened but why it may have happened that way and what was likely the motivation of all involved. He interprets the situations from different angles allowing the reader to sympathise with each person. He really did a fabulous job of laying it all bare without becoming a harsh judge.

The topics of starvation and cannibalism is dealt with in the second half of the book. Again, Philbrick was well researched and matter-of-fact about them but ultimately didn't lay out any moral judgments. Whatever the reader's position on the topic of cannibalism, you are free to have your view and yet to understand what and why the crew did what they did. If you are sensitive to this type of thing then you might think twice about reading this book. Especially the description of the states of starvation can be a bit grueling. I found the whole book to be very interesting but this was the one area I struggled the most with anxiety. It wasn't completely gross but it was handled with the same honesty as the section in the first half of the book describing the dissection of a whale.

A couple of connections were made for me from my recent reading. Ernest Shackleton is held up as a comparison of leadership styles in disastrous adventures. And Nathaniel Bowditch's American Practical Navigation is referred to throughout. Also, the references to Melville's Moby Dick actually made me think, ever so briefly, that I may want to look through it again. Of course I quickly corrected my thinking on that point and simply enjoyed that I did in fact know of what the book was talking about. But it sparked in me an interest to learn more about some of the other references. I will likely read The Mutiny on the Bounty soon because it is so heavily referenced.

So there it is. If you have a somewhat stronger constitution and an interest in the paths men will take to overcome danger and disaster then you will very likely find this book extremely interesting.

BTW, In the Heart of the Sea won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2000, making this the 11th award winner read for the Book Awards Reading Challenge. And this concludes my commitment to the Seafaring Challenge. Of the 4 titles I read (Carry On, Mr. Bowditch; Endurance; The Old Man and the Sea; and In the Heart of the Sea) it's hard to say which has been my favorite. They have all been good and so very different but with the common theme of the sea bringing them all together. I can think of about 10 more books on my shelves that would fit into this theme as well that I may have to seek out when I'm in need of an adventure. One thing I've learned is that the ocean is an unpredictable entity making for very interesting adventures.


Jeane said...

My father recommended this book to me and I read it several years ago. I enjoyed it very much, and got curious about some of the other written accounts about the Essex. But never read them.

Sherry said...

I just read a very different nonfiction book and found out that Nathaniel Bowditch spent his last years in a mental hospital in Boston. It doesn't seem right for such a brilliant man to have ended up that way.

Petunia said...

Jeane-It is quite the interesting tale.

Sherry-that is sad. I had no idea.

Anonymous said...

This book has been assigned for my child's 7th grade summer reading. I know it has received glowing reviews, but is the subject matter appropriate for that age group?

Petunia said...

It would depend on the sensativity of the child. I think most Jr. Highers would find it interesting if a little gross. The more descriptive parts could be skimmed.