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Book Review: In The Heart of The Sea – The Tragedy of The Whaleship Essex


You’ve probably heard of Captain Ahab, The White Whale, “Thar She Blows,” and all that. But Moby Dick was inspired by the events of the whale ship Essex.

Moby Dick =

  • Massive amounts of pages–pages filled with whaling minutiae. You’ll be for begging for mercy
  • A great adventure tale, but the percentage of adventure to the descriptions of viscous blubber oil is skewed heavily in favor of the oil.

  • The darling of psychoanalysts everywhere
  • Author Herman Melville’s love letter to Shakespeare. The Bard’s stylistic quirks and bombastic speeches are on every deck of the Pequod.

whalejpg1In The Heart of The Sea is way more exciting than MD and cuts right to the chase. After a brief history of Nantucket and early 19th century whaling communities, the crew of the Essex set out to whale their fool heads off. I say “fool” because the descriptions of what it means to whale are terrifying. These guys either had no other options, were out of their minds, or the money was just so good that it was worth rowing up to a whale and jabbing it with a sharp stick.

A quick In the Heart of the Sea summary without spoilers that you couldn’t get from the dust jacket: the ship gets rammed by a whale and sinks. The survivors drift in three tiny boats for nearly 100 days. They don’t have enough food or water. It eventually comes to the drawing of straws: the men draw to see who must die and be eaten by the rest of the crew. They accept this with remarkable stoicism in some of the most memorable and moving scenes I’ve ever read.

By now you know whether you want to read this book or not, so I’ll speak briefly about the author, and about prizewinners.

Philbrick is an able researcher and great writer. It is always a nice surprise to read a great book, only learning later just how smart the author is. My point: you never feel intellectually over matched by Philbrick, even though most of us probably are.

Second: whenever a book wins a prize, my first reaction is to steer clear. Selections can be driven by politics, marketing, or whether the voting body had its cup of coffee that morning. This is just my personal opinion and taste speaking, but knowing that a book has won an award rarely sends me racing out to buy it.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 2000. They got it right. And if you like this, check out Mayflower by the same author. Very good, but not as exciting.

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  • Jeanette October 11, 2011, 11:08 pm

    Thanks for the tip on Mayflower. Loved In the Heart of the Sea.

  • Sandra May 3, 2012, 10:55 am

    Just finished “In the Heart of the Sea” and liked it very much. I’m looking forward to getting your monthly newsletters.