Monday, December 9, 2013

Book review: "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex"

The sinking of the whaleship Essex in 1820 by an enraged whale "was one of the most well-known marine disasters in of the nineteenth century," writes Nathaniel Philbrick in "In the Heart of the Sea." But until I picked up this book, I had never heard of it.

Now I will never forget it.

Philbrick does an outstanding job pulling together information from disparate sources to create a gripping account of the Essex's sinking and the crew's subsequent struggle to survive. The event was Herman Melville's inspiration for "Moby Dick."

The Essex sank in the middle of the Pacific, far from land, and its 20 men set out in three small boats in an effort to save themselves. Most of them wouldn't make it.

It's a grim story and sometimes painful to read, but is also fascinating and dramatic. More than a tale of survival, this book is a look at human strengths and failings in desperate circumstances.

"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," Philbrick writes.

Setting the stage for the story of the Essex, Philbrick profiles the world of 19th century whaling and the town at its heart, Nantucket, Massachusetts. It was a difficult lifestyle in which men went away to sea for years at a time, while their wives ran the families and the town. Often, the husbands didn't come back: About a quarter of adult Nantucket women were widows, Philbrick writes.

Still, for young men and boys (they started on the ships as young as 15), whaling offered a chance for adventure and advancement. Once at sea, harsh realities set in. Philbrick notes the Nantucketers' favorite treatment for seasickness: "The sufferer was made to swallow a piece of pork fat tied to a string, which was then pulled back up again. If the symptoms returned, the process was repeated."

I don't want to spoil anyone's reading of the story by saying too much about the events after the sinking, but there are some surprises. I like how Philbrick broadens his discussion of events by adding in scientific information on starvation, thirst and open-sea navigation. Two good maps in the book were helpful.

If you like this sort of book, let me recommend two others. First, there's "Unbroken," the book by Laura Hillenbrand about an American who survives extraordinary a plane crash and abuse in Japanese POW camps during World War II.

Another good read is "Adrift," Steven Callahan's first-person account of floating across the Atlantic alone for 76 days in a life raft after his sailboat sank (it may have been hit by a whale).

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