Tuesday, June 13, 2017

In the Heart of the Sea

Two things I want to share here up front:  one, I don’t want to write a negative review ever again.  I want to write about books that thrill me in some way.  If there are negatives or areas where the work falls short, I’ll mention them, but I want to thoroughly enjoy the books I read and write about, and I want to be able to recommend them, even if they have a few shortcomings.

Two, I buy more books than I can possibly read.  I am like a cat chasing a feather.  I read about a certain book or see it reviewed somewhere, and I want to read it.  I make my purchase, add it to the growing stacks around my work area, but before I can read it, I see other books that I want to read and go after them.  So what happens is, when I go looking for something because I think I have it already, or I take the time to dust and reorganize my shelves and stacks, I find books I wanted to read months or even years ago and I realize I forgot I had them.  I place them in a stack near my desk but they are again buried by new acquisitions.

So the books I write about maybe new or maybe old, and in some cases, very old.  I can only guarantee that I enjoyed them enough to write about them, and that if you can find a copy, you might enjoy them too.  If you find them not enjoyable, feel free to comment and share your opinion because I like the discussion.

Seventeen years ago, I bought a book I could not wait to read, only I did wait.  I waited a long time, and I am embarrassed to say, I was flipping around on the television one evening when I happened upon the theatrical movie version of the book directed by Ron Howard and realized I had a copy somewhere in my apartment and began the search for it.  The book is called In the Heart of the Sea:  The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking Penguin, 2000).  At the time of purchase, I was teaching Melville to high school students and this book purported to be about the true story that inspired Melville to write his greatest novel, Moby Dick.

I have to say I love sea stories from Horatio Hornblower to The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger (Norton, 2009) to Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.  In fact, although I am not much more than an armchair adventurer, I love the human being against nature tale.  Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (Anchor Books, 1997) comes to mind as well as the writing of Jack London and also Gary Paulson.

In the Heart of the Sea is a more detailed and developed story as a book over the movie version, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I could not leave it alone and bombs could have been falling on my couch and I would not have moved.  Philbrick’s writing is solid and serviceable, not artistic, but his story is well researched and accompanied by an extensive bibliography for further reading.  What was most interesting is how the world was such a wild and unexplored place to these early 19th century whalers.  They would set off from Nantucket on the East coast of America and travel down around Cape Horn and up the coast of South America to their hunting grounds.  The journey could take three to five years or more before they could return with a full cargo of whale oil.  But that oil was a valuable commodity until fossil fuels were discovered on land, so the material was critical to civilization at the expense of these beautiful animals.  And of course, one of them, the celebrated white whale, took issue with the ship and crew and exacted a painful and deadly revenge.

The story of how those sailors survived after their good ship was smashed to splinters is gripping and powerful.  They resorted to cannibalism to survive and were in extreme jeopardy when rescued.  Ultimately, eight of the twenty crew members made it back in rigged up battered whaleboats after 95 days stranded at sea.  Two members of the crew, Owen Chase and Thomas Nickerson wrote accounts of the deadly voyage and both Philbrick and Melville used these accounts extensively to fuel their stories.

There is also the matter of environmental destruction.  During the course of their desperate voyage, the sailors burned up an entire island leading to the destruction of several species of birds and tortoises.  In addition, they were hunting an endangered species.  Part of the reason the crew had to journey so far was that the whale population had been depleted by extreme hunting.

The book puts the reader on that fateful voyage and is a great summer read.  It is the kind of adventure story to dive into on those hot nights when sleep is impossible.  Guaranteed, the lost crew of the Essex and their white whale nemesis will haunt your dreams long after you have closed the covers of the book.

Sketch of the whale ship Essex by Thomas Nickerson

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