In the Heart of the Sea, the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, Nathanial Philbrick

Had my eyes on this historical account for a while, maybe as far back as when it was first published in 1999, but only now got around to it – thank you 2020 lifestyle changes.  Worth the read, as it is informative and mostly captivating, but not as weighty as I’d imagined from the reviews and PR.  The actual Essex story is not enough to fill a volume, so it’s been well-buttressed with digressions on the history of whaling and particularly the island of Nantucket, from which the Essex sailed (and which is also, not coincidentally, the author’s adopted home and professional focus).  Another interesting offshoot is the description of how details of the journey have even come to be known, a dramatic stew of journals, spoken word, interested reporters and long-lost documents re-appearing unexpectedly.   With all that background, the actual shipwreck is a minor event, over almost before it has begun – simply because that is the way it happened. The castaway’s travails take up more space and yet feel a bit mundane – not because they are not epic and dramatic, but perhaps because they and other similar escapes have been absorbed as part of our common history and have thus lost some of their impact. 

The author does a great job finding additional angles to explore, including the racial (black men were relatively welcome to become whalers not so much because their employers were colorblind as because being a whaler was a terrible occupation and few white men would sink so low; did black castaways die first because of how poorly they had been fed and treated prior to the wreck, or due more overt prejudice?), the environmental (whaling grounds became depleted by over-harvesting forcing ships farther out into the unknown sea, with sometimes deadly consequences; and a single whaling crew could devastate the ecology of a small Pacific island in days, undoing nature’s work of centuries), and the role of gender (how Nantucket women found independence and self-definition marrying men who would be away from home for years at a time, return for a couple of months between sailings, and often die while their families were still young).

Despite those points, this is, at its heart, a tale of humans eating other humans’ remains in order to survive, and even killing some of their own to do so.  Philbrick is clear about the moral dilemmas this presents, and especially the effects which surviving such a situation can have on the perpetrators’ psyches, both at the time and in the later years of those lucky enough to survive.  It is perhaps here that the book is most intriguing, as we see how Captain Pollard attempted to pursue his career despite later misfortunes, ending up a beloved failure in his hometown.  The exegeses of others are no less individual and interesting; and remind us once again of the resilience of humans when they have even small support of family, community, faith, or a combination thereof.

In the Heart of the Sea is still worth reading and ruminating upon, even if its story feels narrow and inconsequential at this moment of profound national dangers.

(Note – there is also a 2015 movie based the book, but given the gruesomeness of the castaways’ journey, I’m not sure if I want to see it on the big screen…)

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