The Tragedy of the Whale Ship Essex Nathaniel Philbrick Viking Press Historical Non-Fiction

This is the most amazing non-fiction book I’ve read all year. Told with a historian’s eye for fact and an artist’s eye for detail, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA makes everything from the history of Quaker run Nantucket to the nutritional details of cannibalism interesting and understandable.

   The whale ship Essex was the background that inspired Herman Melville, a whaler himself, to write his epic, MOBY DICK. The ship was sunk after an attack by a sperm whale thousands of miles off the coast of South America. Its crew was forced to endure an almost unbelievable 93 days on the open sea. How the whalers endured and what happened to the survivors is, in some ways, the story of bravery, courage and skill, but on another level it is a karmic tale of man and nature, with nature coming up a little ahead for a while.

Philbrick used two accounts of the tragedy written by survivors. The first written by the first mate, was published within six months of their rescue. The second, written by the cabin boy, did not surface until recently when someone was doing renovation on their house and found the unpublished manuscript. The author does a good job of gleaning the facts from the two tales and noting when one of the survivors may have been shedding a kind light on circumstances. Also woven masterfully though the story is a first rate history of Nantucket and the whaling industry, the intricacies of whaling, sailing and precise detail about the physical reactions to long term starvation, and the dynamics of leadership roles in a survival situation.
Even though what happened to the men of the Essex was horrible, somewhere between learning about their unbridled slaughter of whales and the decimation of a Galapagos island in the pursuit of sea turtles, I began to wonder if there wasn’t some karma involved in the Essex tragedy. Of course I could just be an animal lover with a cruel streak, either way, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is a fabulous book, that rare combination of education and entertainment that is lacking in so many books and films these days, and should not be missed.