I was utterly transfixed by In the Heart of the Sea.
Reasons I loved this book:
- It took place on a ship at sea.
- There was a shipwreck, and therefore much of the story was about survival (I love survival stories!).
- There was whale revenge.
- It was a true story that read like fiction.
- I learned more about Quakers, a religious group I like to read about (really I like to read about any religious groups).
- It took place 200 years ago, so there was lots of history, most having to do with Nantucket and the whaling industry.
- The Essex disaster inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
In 1819, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Essex whaleship was attacked by an 85 foot sperm whale, and sunk. The crew divided up into the three available whale boats, one of which was in pretty bad shape. They gathered as many supplies as they could, and they tried to head for South America. By the time they were rescued, they had been in their boats for about 90 days. They were dying of starvation and dehydration. Because of accounts left behind by the survivors, there is detailed information about what went on during those horrible 90 days at sea.
The frustrating thing is that the men could have possibly avoided some of their hardships and many of the deaths, but were too scared by rumours of cannibalism on the unknown islands at sea that they avoided heading for them altogether. They did, about half way through their ordeal, land on Henderson Island, which was not inhabited. But, it did not have a lot of food or water, so they were forced to leave it. All but 3 of the men who couldn’t stand the thought of getting back in the boats. I think I would have chosen to stay on the island, too.
… the men of the Essex could have avoided disaster, but this does not diminish the extent of the men’s sufferings, or their bravery and extraordinary discipline.
Never before the attack on the Essex had a Nantucketer heard of a whale attacking a ship. In the years following the disaster, though, there were more reports of this happening (by sperm whales). I can’t help but wonder why.
The epilogue ties up the loose ends of the story; it fills us in on what happened to the survivors after they were brought home, as well as discussing the lasting effects the Essex disaster had on the world.
- The whaling industry was huge on Nantucket Island in the 18th and 19th centuries. By 1760, Nantucketers had already wiped out most of the local whale population, and had to start heading farther out to sea. By the time of the Essex it was common to be gone on a whaling voyage for 2-3 years.
- “There was rumoured to be a secret society of young women on the island whose members pledged to marry only men who had already killed a whale… Boatsteerers, superb athletes with prospects of lucrative captaincies, were considered the most eligible of Nantucket bachelors.”
- The cure for seasickness: “The sufferer was made to swallow a piece of pork fat tied to a string, which was then pulled back up again. If the symptoms returned, the process was repeated.”
- Ambergris: a fatty substance found in the whale’s intestines and used to make perfume. Yick.
- It was common practice for ships to stop at the Galapagos Islands to fill up with tortoises. The tortoises were prized for their ability to go for more than a year without food or water.
- For almost 180 years, most of what was known about the disaster came from the account written by Owen Chase, the ship’s first mate. It wasn’t until 1960 that a notebook belonging to Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy of the Essex, added another dimension to the story.
In the Heart of the Sea has been made into a movie, coming out December 26, 2015. I’m not so sure I want to see it. Reading about it was hard enough. (Hard, but impossible to stop.) My heart almost stopped just watching the trailer. Storms, huge angry whales, big wide open ocean. And, one of the crew was only 14 years old.
This is the first book I’ve read by Nathaniel Philbrick, but when I was done, I immediately went to check out what else he has written. A lot of great-looking books, plus a new one in the works about the middle years of the American Revolution. Sea of Glory and Mayflower are the two that are calling to me. (Mom, I think I’ve seen Mayflower on your bookshelves, haven’t I?)
Who else has read this? Are you planning to see the movie?