I'm already wondering how I'm going to explain myself in my yearly book review post (2007, 2008). It's only the end of August and I've already read three books that involve, to varying degrees, well, cannibalism. Two of them were different books about the same event (Miracle in the Andes and Alive; both tell the story of the Uruguayan rugby team that was stranded in the Andes for more than two months).
The third is In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick.
The first thing you should know about this book is that it is the story of an early 19th-century whaling ship that was destroyed by a massive, vicious sperm whale in the middle of the ocean. The ship broke in two and sunk in a matter of minutes, leaving the 21 members of the crew scrabbling for a place in one of three small, ramshackle whaleboats.
You'd think those events, by themselves, would make a pretty good story and an interesting enough book. But the second thing you should know about this book is that that's not even the best part. The sinking of the whaleship Essex by a deranged sea creature is just the beginning of what In the Heart of the Sea is about.
Because the crew survived the initial sinking of their ship, and found themselves adrift in the middle of a vast, hostile ocean. Then the real fun begins. Should they rig up some sails? Yes, but where should they seek refuge? That's where things start to fall apart. There are some islands near enough, true, but they are inhabited by cannibals, or so popular knowledge of the time went. There's the familiar western coast of South America, but it is thousands of miles away and inconvenient to the prevailing winds the sailors must rely on. The food and water supplies they have will only last so long. What to do?
As with most books of this kind, the less you know about the particulars of the story going into reading it, the better. So I'll just say this: having to resort to cannibalism is bad enough, but you know what's worse? Drawing lots to see who has to die so that others can live. And you know what's worse than that? Drawing more lots to see who has to kill that person so that others can live. Yeah.
In the Heart of the Sea is tight, compelling, and doesn't put you off, even with its unsavory subject matter - and I'm not just talking about the cannibalism. The nineteenth-century whaling business was dirty, yucky stuff, even without being shipwrecked. I loved how the author was able to flesh out the sparser areas of the story (mostly due to spotty sources) using details and records from earlier voyages of the same boat, or concurrent voyages of different boats. He also delves into the science of starvation and survival, explaining the body's defenses and in what order they are broken down, one by one, when you're stranded in a tiny whaleboat open to the elements in the middle of the ocean for months at a time.
I recommend reading this book away from the comforts of home for an extra measure of intensity. I read the bulk of it by flashlight while we were camping in the woods off Lake Seneca, huddled in my sleeping bag. It gave me the shivers, it was such good reading. And that's how you know it's a book worth reading.