Tuesday, January 21, 2014
A Whale of a Disaster Story
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
This book was so engrossing that I felt as if I had worked on a whaling ship and had survived a disaster at sea.
In 1820, the whaleship Essex was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean when a massive whale rammed the ship not once, but twice, sinking it. The crew had to scramble for provisions and escaped into three boats. They set sail for South America, which was nearly 3,000 miles away. They soon ran out of fresh water and food, and eventually resorted to cannibalism. Only eight men out of 20 survived. This tragedy was so famous in the 1800s that it inspired Herman Mellvile's novel Moby Dick.
Nathaniel Philbrick is a skilled writer of history, weaving together the details of the disaster and providing context to both the whaling industry in the 19th century and the island of Nantucket, which was considered home to most of the crew. Philbrick also considers the psychology and emotions of Captain George Pollard, First Mate Owen Chase, Cabin Boy Thomas Nickerson and of other crew members. The leadership style of Pollard is especially interesting; Philbrick compares him to other captains and explorers and wonders if some lives could have been saved if Pollard had been more authoritarian.
One of the details that is fascinating is that Pollard and the crew decided to try to reach South America, when they knew they were closer to several islands. They had heard legends about cannibals on the islands, and were afraid to go there: "Only a Nantucketer in November 1820 possessed the necessary combination of arrogance, ignorance and xenophobia to shun a beckoning (albeit unknown) island and choose instead an open-sea voyage of several thousand miles."
The book includes several pictures of what the Essex looked like, including a sketch from one of the survivors. Even though it was just a drawing, it was chilling to see a giant whale take aim at a ship. There are also several maps, including one featuring the entire voyage of the Essex: It left from Nantucket island in New England, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, then all the way down South America, around Cape Horn, then up the western coast of South America, reaching the Equator and then heading west, deep into the Pacific Ocean.
The sheer distance and magnitude of the journey boggles the mind. Nowadays we get grouchy if our Internet speed is too slow, or if our airplane flight is delayed a few hours because of weather. Reading about the patience, planning and fortitude required to survive such a journey -- even without the shipwreck -- is truly astounding.
Now I am hooked on Philbrick and want to read all of his books.