Friday, January 25, 2013

heart of the sea

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex is Nathaniel Philbrick's re-telling of an infamous Nantucket whaling story, which formed the basis, or at least the germ, of Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

Philbrick is a native Nantucketer, and has made an effort to bring together the various stories of the Essex that have been told and published over the years--some by the very survivors of the tragedy--analyze, cross reference and fact check them, and then research the story and its setting, to compile a more complete and accurate narrative of the event, its making and its aftermath.

One of Philbrick's early indicators that not everything was being told, was the obvious contradictions between two eyewitness accounts of the tragedy, and the aftermath. After a little study, it became clear that the authors, in each case, simply left out some of the details that they felt may have placed them in a negative light. History is written by the victors*, and all that, right?

So Philbrick has woven the various stories together, and infilled some of the blanks in the narrative with research. The result is a very compelling story of survival and commentary on the accidents that can sometimes occur in nature, and what man does in the face of them.

Philbrick also gives a succinct, yet complete description of the techniques and tools used in whaling, the attitudes of the men involved--from the ship owners and townspeople, to the captains and mates, right down to the seaman, who were often taken advantage of in the whole venture. Philbrick asks hard questions, such as, why is it that the first men to die were black?

His follow up on the survivors, even late into their lives made for an interesting ending to the story, woven in with the end of whaling as a major industry after oil was discovered in Pennsylvania.

On the whole, a more enjoyable, informative and exciting book than Moby Dick. But then, it may just be my modern shortened attention spans talking there.

* Attributed to Winston Churchill, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Alex Haley by various sources. I love you internet.

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