In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick


I was utterly transfixed by In the Heart of the Sea.

Reasons I loved this book:

  1. It took place on a ship at sea.
  2. There was a shipwreck, and therefore much of the story was about survival (I love survival stories!).
  3. There was whale revenge.
  4. It was a true story that read like fiction.
  5. I learned more about Quakers, a religious group I like to read about (really I like to read about any religious groups).
  6. It took place 200 years ago, so there was lots of history, most having to do with Nantucket and the whaling industry.
  7. The Essex disaster inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

What happened:

1057217In 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.

22521575A few things I learned from this book:

  • 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.

26532159The movie:

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.

The author:

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 onΒ your bookshelves, haven’t I?)

Who else has read this? Are you planning to see the movie?



33 thoughts on “In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

  1. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    This book has been on my list for so long, mostly because of the New England history in it. And now I have your endorsement on top of it. That cure for seasickness is pretty disgusting, isn’t it? How could they be sure that they were sick from the ocean and not the piece of fat? Yuck! I will probably not watch the movie, but then I hardly ever watch movies anyway, so it’s not surprising. πŸ™‚

  2. mom says:

    Yes you probably have seen Philbrick’s Mayflower on my shelves, since I do own it. It calls to me sometimes, but like you, I borrow from the library, so tend to be slow getting to books I own. Since this applies to many worthy titles, feel free to borrow Mayflower whenever you’re ready. Perhaps I’ll read In The Heart of the Sea before that one…..

  3. Cecilia says:

    Hi Naomi! Your post called to me as I recently started Mayflower. I’ve been so slow reading these days though so I haven’t made much progress, but I agree that Philbrick is a terrific historian-writer. I am *very* much enjoying Mayflower.

    Now that I’ve read your review I think I will check out the trailer for the movie, for a visual. This is not normally my kind of story but I did get quite interested after reading Ahab’s Wife for our Literary Wives group some time ago.

    • Naomi says:

      Hi Cecilia!! So glad to hear you’re enjoying Mayflower – that’s the one my mother has. πŸ™‚
      I wasn’t in the group yet when you read Ahab’s Wife. In fact, I don’t even remember reading about it, so I might not have even been blogging yet. It sounds like one I might like.

      • Cecilia says:

        Yes, I think it was one of the earlier Literary Wives reads. It was an okay book. I remember that we all had quite varied opinions on it!

  4. ebookclassics says:

    I really want to read this book and see the movie too. I’m especially interested in what kind of connection the book has to Moby Dick. Are you going to see the movie?

    • Naomi says:

      If I see the movie it will have to be in my own house on the small screen. I don’t know if I can handle that huge ocean on the big one. πŸ™‚
      I really didn’t know about the Essex disaster before reading this book, or about the fact that it inspired Moby Dick. Had no idea. Kind of embarrassing since Nantucket is just South of me.
      I think you should read the book first, if you can!

      • Care says:

        Yea, “Nantucket is just south of me”. But a long haul to get there anyway! πŸ™‚ I haven’t even made it over to Nantucket which is very embarrassing because it was only a few hours boat ride. Just didn’t happen… yet.
        Also, I MUST suggest you read OVERBOARD! by Michael Tougias. SO GOOD.
        I read Mayflower. Lots of fun facts.

  5. whatmeread says:

    I think I’ve looked out for this one but haven’t found it yet. I have read a couple of books by him, Mayflower and one about Nantucket, but interesting, although Mayflower is much better.

    • Naomi says:

      I think his first book is a history of Nantucket, which I wouldn’t be quite as interested in. Mayflower sounds good, though. And there is a bit of Nantucket history in The Heart of the Sea – just enough, but not too much.

      • whatmeread says:

        Yes, that’s the one. My biggest complaint was that it seemed like it was written for the Nantucket chamber of commerce. For one thing, it assumed a great deal of knowledge of the town itself that I didn’t have. Even though it had a map, it was almost indecipherable, and then it would say things like “This building is by the post office.” Uh huh.

  6. Don Royster says:

    I didn’t know you like to read about religious groups and the religious experience. I used to read a lot in that area. Not so much now. A couple of books I think you will like are: Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris (nonfiction) and a novel Deep River by Shusaku Endo. Deep River is one of the books I am re-reading as I work on my novel. Shusaku Endo was a Japanese Christian but the novel is about six people’s pilgrimage to the Ganges. Another favorite of mine is Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene. I highly recommend all three.

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks, Don! I love getting your suggestions. πŸ™‚
      When I read about religion, I usually like it to be fiction. I like to learn about the history of it, and all the different rituals and customs. Humans are fascinating creatures!

  7. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    Definitely want to read this for Reading New England. It’s good to be forewarned about the harrowing bits — but the book sounds thrilling too. I also think actually seeing the scenes on the screen would be too much for me! I’d probably spend most of the movie with my eyes closed.

    • Naomi says:

      I was thinking this would be a perfect book for Reading New England. Too bad I’ve already read it. I’m sure I’ll be able to find another good one to read, though – there are so many!

  8. Heather says:

    I was in two minds about seeing the film. It’s one of those that I thought I’d see it at the cinema if I have the chance to do so, but if I miss out then no big deal. But I watched a trailer for it last week and now I absolutely have to see it on the big screen. I love adventurous stories set at sea (brought about by my growing obsession with early Antarctic exploration) and this one looks pretty amazing. So I definitely want to read the book as well.

    I just finished a book that I think you might like – although it has a pretty horrible murderer in it and some gruesome scenes involving animal deaths. But aside from those things that made me gasp out loud while reading, it was so well written. AND it’s mostly set on a ship. It’s called ‘The North Water’ by Ian McGuire. It’s on NetGalley at the moment and comes out in Feb next year (in Australia anyway).

    • Naomi says:

      Oh, that does sound good! I do like stories at sea. I can’t wait to hear more about it.
      And, I agree that the movie of In the Heart of the Sea looks fantastic, but also very heart-stopping. I want to see it, but don’t at the same time. πŸ™‚

    • Naomi says:

      I think you’re right. Except for the parts with whale blood and oil all over the boat. Maybe they’ll leave those parts out. Just be warned… πŸ™‚

    • Naomi says:

      It is sad. Which is why I was rooting for the whale. But, maybe they won’t put the gore in the movie. I’m going to wait and let someone else tell me about it first before I see it.
      In the book you could just gloss over the sad and gory parts.
      For some reason it’s more sad to read about animals suffering than people.

      • DoingDewey says:

        Haha, waiting to hear about the movie sounds like a good idea to me! I also often find it harder to read about bad things happening to animals, I think because animals are generally more defenseless than people.

  9. Rebecca Foster says:

    I saw the movie on Saturday (I’m in the States for the holidays) and enjoyed it but found the casting an odd mix: some Hollywood hunks but mostly British TV character actors. It’s been too long since I read the book, but my impression is that the film was pretty faithful to the storyline apart from introducing one or two more White Whale encounters than there actually were. Luckily it wasn’t as gory as it could have been.

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks for checking back in to let me know, Rebecca! Not as gory as it could have been is a very good thing. πŸ™‚
      Have a fun holiday vacation!

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