A few years ago during a long, white winter, I read Moby-Dick and loved it. I loved the descriptions of the boats and the oceans and the day-to-day life of sailors who signed up for this incredibly demanding and dangerous lifestyle. They risked everything for the promise of adventure, travel, and the admiration of the folks back home, but almost no money. They chose to pursue and butcher by hand animals so large, so strong, and so intelligent that it’s almost unbelievable that they ever managed to capture a single one. And yet they did succeed, in the middle of the ocean with not much more than a small ship, a few row boats, some spears, and an awful lot of rope. They brought back enough whale oil to light most of a country.
Being fascinated with the mindset that would make a whole group of people choose such a lifestyle, it didn’t take much for me to pick up In the Heart of the Sea (with its fancy new movie-inspired cover). This thorough history covered everything I wanted to learn about—and some things that hadn’t occurred to me yet—but remained readable and engaging throughout. It opens with cannibalism and builds from there.
Philbrick’s mastery here is to shape these historical figures as well-rounded characters before relating the entire “plot.” You get to know each of them through his primary source research, so you empathize with the choices they make when faced with a variety of dangerous situations. He also establishes well the culture of the Nantucket from which they came, exploring the role of women, African-Americans, Quakers, greenhorns, children, and other social groups within the larger culture—a culture that revolves entirely around whaling. This background enables the reader to not only understand but also sympathize with decisions that, with the benefit of hindsight, we know will be disastrous.
I also learned a lot more, even than from Moby-Dick, about the daily life upon a whale ship during this time. Especially fascinating was the excursions the crew made onto the Galapagos Islands to harvest sea birds and tortoises, which they would cook right in their shells. Sailors brought as many live tortoises as possible back to the ship (by strapping the tortoises onto their backs). The tortoises would live on the deck eating and drinking very little until the crew was ready to eat them. This kept the sailors in fresh, unspoiled meat without having to share nearly as many of their provisions as the live pigs on board demanded. Before this, my imaginings of a whale ship didn’t include sailors tripping over pigs and tortoises on deck, sliding side to side in rough waters.
The print book includes a lot of historical paintings and photos as well as technical drawings of ships and whaleboats, which supported the text. I’d recommend reading the paper copy. Also, yes, I saw the movie not long after finishing the book. Although I could watch Chris Hemsworth and Cillian Murphy do just about anything for two hours, the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the book (and I don’t think that’s always the case). The characters are flattened and simplified to fit them into easier personas that don’t require as much backstory. The effects were, of course, impressive and thrilling, but it’s no substitute for the engaging, detailed and horrifying narrative presented in the book.
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