Monday, August 31, 2009

Book Review: In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
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.


JackJen said...


Liz Johnson said...

That sounds intense. It really didn't gross you out??

Bridget said...

Yeah, honestly, I think was more consistently grossed out by the regular old whaling boat business than the desperate measures they took to survive after the shipwreck. I was also disgusted by the descriptions of the food they had to eat before things got bad - hardtack and old meat soaked in seawater. That was normal food for the sailors. Gross.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

I read "Heart of the Sea" when it was new. When you read about 18th-19th century whaling, sources seldom describe the horrible reality of that kind of life, as this book does.

Laura said...

I think that you would enjoy a book that I just started reading. It is called The Bookseller of Kabul. It gives you an insight how life is for a woman in Afghanistan today.

Jennifer said...

Very interesting!

Have you read Philbrick's "Mayflower"? (Sorry, don't know to do italics here). I really enjoyed learning more about the pilgrims and he tells it in such an interesting way.

Kristen said...

And don't forget "Desperate Passage" from last year to add to your growing list of cannibalism tales. This one sounds really good too. Personally I'm not grossed out by cannibalism as a last-resort survival effort. However, the idea of killing a person to eat him/her is far more disturbing to me than simply consuming the flesh of an already deceased counterpart, as was the case with the Donners. Interesting stuff.


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