Thursday, October 06, 2005

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

I just finished reading In the Heart of the Sea, The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick. I, of course, had heard of the book and knew that it had been a bestseller; but I had never read it until this week. It was spellbinding.

The story of the sinking of The Essex was the inspiration for Hermann Melville's Moby Dick. This author used one of the same sources that Melville used extensively - an account by the first mate, Owen Chase, entitled Narrative of the Wreck of the Whaleship Essex. (I will list some other accounts of this story at the end of this post.) I found this book fascinating, not only for the story, but also for the descriptions and vocabulary. Never having been on Nantucket Island, I enjoyed the vivid descriptions of that location in the narrative and in the epilogue and notes at the end of the book.

In 1819 The Essex left Nantucket with a very young and new crew intending to sail down the coast, around Cape Horn and into the South Pacific hunting for whales. After 15 months at sea, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the ship was rammed and sunk by an angry sperm whale. The crew is forced to board three small whaling boats to try to reach South America (about 3000 miles away.) It is really not as much an adventure story as a tale of survival, determination, and desperation. Only about half of the sailors survived the ordeal to finally reach the shores of Chile. How the survivors manage to BECOME survivors is part of the draw of the story.

I enjoyed the vocabulary choices this author made. While I did not encounter any totally unfamiliar words (except techincal terms related to whale fishing) there were several very interesting word choices. One example is "malignity" (intense ill will or hatred.) We regularly encounter other forms of this word in our reading and conversation, but I don't recall ever seeing this noun form used. Also the author chose the words "brown and sere" to describe, if I remember correctly, the skin of some of the sailors. Very vivid and exact description.

Besides the story itself and the author's vocabulary choices, I also enjoyed learning a little about lifestyles of almost two hundred years ago in sea-faring communities. I wondered WHY young women of the day would marry these sailors. The men would spend 2 or 3 months at home and then be gone again for 2 or 3 years. One Nantucket woman, Eliza Brock, wrote a poem in her journal which she called "Nantucket Girl's Song." The poem ends with these lines: "But when he says, 'Goodbye my love, I'm off across the sea,' First I cry for his departure, then laugh because I'm free." Maybe this is the answer I sought as to the young women's reasons for marrying.

If you want to know more after you read this absorbing book, there are other accounts of this event in history. An unpublished noteboook written by the youngest member of the crew, Thomas Nickerson, was found in 1980. This amateur account was published just for the Nantucket museum in 1984. There is also a narrative poem about the Essex entitled "A Travail Past" by Charles Philbrick (an uncle of this author.) Thomas Heffernan wrote an account called Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex in 1981. There is also a novel, The Jonah Man, by Henry Carlisle published in 1984, which tells the story from the viewpoint of the captain of the ship, George Pollard.

This is definitely one of our country's great true adventure stories.


Carol said...

I've never heard of this book, but you certainly piqued my interest (Did I use the word right?).

Ruth said...

Joan...I loved your review of In The Heart of the Sea. I am not familiar with the book butyou made me want to read the book.

Anither of you unclaimed talents!