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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars not terrible, but not exactly what it presents itself to be, September 2, 2002
This review is from: In Search Of Moby Dick: The Quest For The White Whale (Paperback)
Before I describe what this book is, I should describe what it is NOT, because I feel that it is definitely (and perhaps deliberately) mistitled, and if I had known was it was, I probably would never have chosen to read it.

I bought this book without bothering to riffle through it, being under the impression that it was an investigation into whatever facts lay behind the Moby Dick legend upon which Melville based his well-known novel. Although Severin partially covers this angle in the last (and definitely most engrossing) chapter, this is certainly NOT what this book is about on the whole.

Severin himself touches on this [p. 52]: "The animal Melville had in mind was probably inspired by reading a short story in an American magazine, The Knickerbocker, in 1839. The piece was called `Mocha Dick or the White Whale of the Pacific' and it was a yarn about a big bull sperm whale regularly encountered off the coat of Chile. The animal was said to be `as white as wool', though whether because it was an albino or from old age was not known."

But this is virtually the only mention Severin makes of this mysterious beast.

So what is it about? For a period of about a year and a half the author roamed through Oceania staying and talking with various whale-hunting communities, for the most part learning about their lifestyles but occasionally exploring the subject of a white sperm whale, which, as Severin is eager to demonstrate, is not limited to Western literature, but makes an appearance in the myths and legends of societies far different from our own.

Unfortunately, the lifestyles of these primitive whaling communities, for the most part, do not make for interesting reading (the section on Lamalera is especially yawn-inducing), and several times during my reading I wondered why I was even bothering to finish it.

Other sections leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, such as when Severin digs up and exposes Melville's many exaggerations. Every author's worst nightmare! Here's a sample:

"[In Typee], Melville describes how the natives of Taipivai were very keen to tattoo their sailor visitor. They point out that his white skin would make such a perfect canvas for their art. Mehevi also wants him to be tattooed, and suggests suitable patterns. The tattooer-in-chief pursues Melville about the village waving his instruments, the sharp-toothed combs and tapping mallet. Yet somehow Melville avoids the operation, and he does not explicitly state how. It is another example of Melville building up suitably colourful ordeals while `living among the cannibals', but then sidling away from any clear explanation of how he emerged intact. Certainly Melville had no tattoos to display when he returned to new England and told an intrigued audience about his `four months' on the Marquesas, though tattoos were already common enough among Western sailors of his day."

Just what every writer needs. A good deal of the book consists of ill-spirited detective work of this kind, most of which is not even germane to Severin's stated purposes.

Conclusion: if you are looking for extra information on the facts behind white whale legends of the mid 1800's, don't look here. The closest book I know of that addresses the question of whether a white whale actually existed (an actual white whale, not just an ordinary black, though perhaps unusually aggressive, sperm whale-like the one that famously smashed up the Essex) would be Norton's "Moby Dick as Doubloon," and even that book only touches on the matter.

Having said that, the book is far from awful. The writing style is brisk and deft, and what Severin has learned on his travels/studies can on occasion be absorbing. It's just that you should know what you're getting into.

Moreover, the soft cover edition is handsomely printed, though it could really have used some maps.

I should also note that this book can boast a top-notch first paragraph. Don't let that fool you, though.
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