Saturday, February 14, 2009

#45 "In the Heart of the Sea" by Nathaniel Philbrick

I figured In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000) was going to be a good book. After all, it had won the National Book Award, and they don't give those awards out to just anyone. I just wasn't sure about the subject. I guess I'm always up for a good survival story, but whale hunting? the real-life story that spawned Moby Dick? I don't have anything against Herman Melville, but I've never been particularly interested in whale hunting or Moby Dick. For some reason I've always thought of it--and still do, actually--as a book for old men. So it was with some ambivalence that I picked it up, but once I started reading my doubts vanished, and I was quickly drawn into this well-told and fascinating story.

In 1820, the Nantucket whaleship Essex, after 15 months at sea, was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale. Twenty men were left thousands of miles from land with only three small whaleboats to take them across the ocean to safety. As the reader, you know that only eight of the twenty men survive. And because you hear the story from the mouths of two of the survivors: the first mate, Owen Chase; and the fifteen-year-old cabin boy George Nickerson, you know that these two will make it, but the rest of the survivors are unknown until near the end. I found myself in the middle of the book playing with numbers, trying to figure out if all three whaleboats could have found safety with only eight survivors.

Perhaps even more interesting than the actual descriptions of the men's time on the boat, (this was necessarily a little repetitive: they were hungry, thirsty, the weather was bad/good, etc.) was Philbrick's description of the Nantucket whaling community and the different aspects of whale hunting. In the 1820's Nantucket was the premiere whale-hunting community. In a time of economic depression, the island was thriving. The men of the island were often out hunting sperm whales for as much as two to three years at a time, coming home for only a few months before heading out to sea again. The women were left to run the island, often becoming widows at an early age.

The specifics of whale hunting were also fascinating. An incredibly dangerous, violent, bloody fight out on the open sea with a generally peaceful, but giant mammal in its element, made all the more interesting by many of the men's pacifistic Quakerism. And even when the whale was dead, the hard work had just begun. The men had to tow the whale back to the ship, cut away all of its blubber, and boil and barrel it on the ship. This job was incredibly backbreaking, dirty, bloody, disgusting, smelly work that went on for days. It was hard to even read about.

Philbrick didn't glorify any of the aspects of the hunt or the people who lived and worked on the Essex. You can tell that he feels some sympathy for the powerful and majestic sperm whale, as he does for the people whose livelihood depended on the sperm whales' death. He also doesn't shy away from some disturbing facts regarding the differing treatments between Nantucketers, "off-islanders," and the blacks on board. Philbrick calls this story a tragedy because even though it is rather miraculous that there were even eight survivors, there were a number of times when, if a different action had been taken, things might have turned out better. This book was surprisingly captivating and powerful, with an insightful and personal look into this tragic adventure, and I would recommend it to anyone.

No comments: