Monday, March 2, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex - Nathaniel Philbrick

Summary:  In the Heart of the Sea brings to new life the incredible story of the wreck of the whaleship Essex—an event as mythic in its own century as theTitanic disaster in ours, and the inspiration for the climax of Moby-Dick. In a harrowing page-turner, Nathaniel Philbrick restores this epic story to its rightful place in American history.

In 1820, the 240-ton Essex set sail from Nantucket on a routine voyage for whales. Fifteen months later, in the farthest reaches of the South Pacific, it was repeatedly rammed and sunk by an eighty-ton bull sperm whale. Its twenty-man crew, fearing cannibals on the islands to the west, made for the 3,000-mile-distant coast of South America in three tiny boats. During ninety days at sea under horrendous conditions, the survivors clung to life as one by one, they succumbed to hunger, thirst, disease, and fear.

In the Heart of the Sea tells perhaps the greatest sea story ever. Philbrick interweaves his account of this extraordinary ordeal of ordinary men with a wealth of whale lore and with a brilliantly detailed portrait of the lost, unique community of Nantucket whalers. Impeccably researched and beautifully told, the book delivers the ultimate portrait of man against nature, drawing on a remarkable range of archival and modern sources, including a long-lost account by the ship's cabin boy. At once a literary companion and a page-turner that speaks to the same issues of class, race, and man's relationship to nature that permeate the works of Melville, In the Heart of the Sea will endure as a vital work of American history.
   (Summary and image from

My Review:  The story of the Essex is more well-known than you may think.  The destruction of the Essex,  a fine and seaworthy vessel, sent shockwaves through whaling communities.  Not only because of the loss of lives, the financial repercussions, or the extreme measures taken by the handful of survivors, but because the destruction of the vessel was a deliberate attack by its prey - a sperm whale.  The whales were thought to be docile - almost tame - so to have one deliberately and maliciously attack a ship was the stuff of nightmares.  Sound familiar?  The story was so incredible, so shocking that when Herman Melville heard it, it became the backbone of his classic Moby Dick.  

I'm a sucker for a shipwreck survival story.  To be honest, though, this one was one of the most difficult I've ever read.  The survivors of the initial sinking are divided into three different whaleships, none of them seaworthy and all equipped for short whale-slaughtering travels.  Their provisions are slight, their luck dismal, the captain is a good man with good instincts but little backbone, and their decisions are deadly.  Philbrick's exhaustive and incredible research made me very much appreciate their trials, but this was definitely a book where there were no winners.  The survivors, while welcomed back to their community and forgiven for whatever happened, can't even be considered winners, their circumstances were so tragic.

I very much appreciated Philbrick's attention to detail.  He made the Nantucket Quaker community come alive.  Their traditions and the impacts it had directly and indirectly on the sailors were well-explained, but not obnoxiously so.  The politics of whaling, the effects of starvation and shipwreck psychology, and the maritime ethics of the time are not areas of my expertise (I know, shocking!).  However, Philbrick had researched them so well and relayed the relevant matter in such an organic way it greatly enriched the book.  I greatly appreciated it.

This has been adapted into a movie, and I have a feeling it'll get quite a bit of buzz.  A real-life Moby Dick!?  Definitely grab this one before you see the flick!

My Rating:  Three and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are accounts of cannibalism, the effects of starvation and dehydration on the men (boils and edema) which can be a little tough to handle if you're sensitive.  There are also difficult accounts of sailors dying from their ordeal.

1 comment:

Jillian said...

For some reason, shipwreck stories have never been engaging to me, probably because I don't like the idea of being stuck on a ship/boat! haha. I do love man vs nature stories a lot though, especially if it's a true story! Glad you liked it.


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