The appeal of Dava Sobel
was, in part, that it illuminated a little-known piece of history through a series of captivating incidents and engaging personalities. Nathaniel Philbrick
's In the Heart of the Sea
is certainly cast from the same mold, examining the 19th-century Pacific whaling industry through the arc of the sinking of the whaleship Essex
by a boisterous sperm whale. The story that inspired Herman Melville's classic Moby-Dick
has a lot going for it--derring-do, cannibalism, rescue--and Philbrick proves an amiable and well-informed narrator, providing both context and detail. We learn about the importance and mechanics of blubber production--a vital source of oil--and we get the nuts and bolts of harpooning and life aboard whalers. We are spared neither the nitty-gritty of open boats nor the sucking of human bones dry.
By sticking to the tried and tested Longitude formula, Philbrick has missed a slight trick or two. The epicenter of the whaling industry was Nantucket, a small island off Cape Cod; most of the whales were in the Pacific, necessitating a huge journey around the southernmost tip of South America. We never learn why no one ever tried to create an alternative whaling capital somewhere nearer. Similarly, Philbrick tells us that the story of the Essex was well known to Americans for decades, but he never explores how such legends fade from our consciousness. Philbrick would no doubt reply that such questions were beyond his remit, and you can't exactly accuse him of skimping on his research. By any standard, 50 pages of footnotes impress, though he wears his learning lightly. He doesn't get bogged down in turgid detail, and his narrative rattles along at a nice pace. When the storyline is as good as this, you can't really ask for more. --John Crace, Amazon.co.uk
From Publishers Weekly
In 1821, a whaling ship came upon a small boat off the coast of Chile containing two deranged men surrounded by human bones that they alternately chewed and clutched to their shriveled bodies. The two were survivors of one of the most well-known marine disasters of the 19th century: the sinking of a 240-ton Nantucket whaleship by an 80-ton sperm whale. A maritime historian, Philbrick recounts the hellish wreck of the Essex (which inspired Melville's Moby-Dick) and its sailors' struggle to make their way to South America, 2,000 miles away. Of the 20 men aboard the two boats, only eight would remain alive through the ravages of thirst, hunger and desperation that beset the voyage. With a gracefulness of language that rarely falters, Philbrick spins a ghastly, irresistible tale that draws upon archival material (including a cabin boy's journal discovered in 1960). Philbrick shows how the Quaker establishment of Nantucket ran a hugely profitable whaling industry in the 18th and 19th centuries and provides a detailed account of shipboard life. A champion sailboat racer himself, Philbrick has a particular affinity for his subject. His fastidious, extensive notes and bibliography will please historians, but it's his measured prose that superbly re-creates a cornerstone of the early American frontier ethos. 16 page photo insert not seen by PW. 15-city author tour; foreign rights sold to nine countries. (May)
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