Kurt McKee

lessons learned in production

Hey there! This article was written in 2006.

It might not have aged well for any number of reasons, so keep that in mind when reading (or clicking outgoing links!).

In the Heart of the Sea (Book)

Posted 28 December 2006

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
Nathaniel Philbrick
ISBN: 0141001828

I enjoyed reading this book, in part because it marks the beginning of a renewed passion for reading that I lost many years ago after switching to predominantly technical literature. The book recounts the story of the Essex, an under-provisioned ship with an understaffed crew in newly-discovered whaling waters in the middle of the Pacific ocean in the early 1800's. They were among the first whalers to encounter a new breed of sperm whale that would become more common in the following decades: the fighter. The whale, reported by the survivors to have been 85 feet long, deliberately slammed into the Essex twice with sufficient force to sink the ship. The crew was forced to embark on a cruel 3,000 mile journey back to the coast of South America in the three boats they had salvaged.

The author relies heavily on two published accounts of the disaster, one by the first mate and the other, a manuscript discovered in the 1980's, by the ship's cabin boy. He also pulls passages from the writings of Herman Melville, both as the author of Moby-Dick (a work inspired by the story of the Essex) and as one who personally met the captain of the Essex, post-disaster. In addition, he sprinkles several relevant Biblical passages throughout. Some are obvious and easy, such as the comparisons to Jonah. One in particular was remarkably selected for the agony it highlights of severe dehydration under a burning equatorial sun: "Have mercy on me and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame!"

I was very impressed with the author's research. The book details the social, historical, and political aspects of life on Nantucket island. It delves into the psychological and physiological tortures of dehydration, starvation, and - eventually - cannibalism. When at last the survivors are rescued, the book surges on to explain what happened to the five survivors after they were found. I say "surges" because I felt that the last chapter was disappointingly anticlimactic, and that the author didn't have enough content to justify the final 30 pages. In that regard it was similar to reading the Return of the King.

I give "In the Heart of the Sea" 4 stars.

*[ISBN]: International Standard Book Number