Book Review: "In The Heart of The Sea" by Nathaniel Philbrick


I’m very particular when it comes to nonfiction. I don’t want to say its because I find it boring, because there have been several nonfiction books I have read that have fascinated me. I mean that. Refer to my home page and see my favorite book of 2014, A Land So Strange by Andrés Reséndez.

Lately I have found two major requirements that come with me being able to enjoy any nonfiction book: the subject matter has to be interesting, and the author has to have an engaging voice. Reséndez had this going for him in his book, which left me pleasantly surprised.

I’m happy to announce that I have found the same pleasant surprise in Philbrick’s book as well. As such, I’m going to give a minor spoiler warning (though it occurs to me that this is history haha) because I’m going to go into a bit of detail about why I loved this book. You have been warned:

The ordeal of the waleship Essex was an event as mythic in the nineteenth century as the Titanic disaster was in the twentieth. Nathaniel Philbrick now restores this epic story--which inspired the climactic scene in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick--to its rightful place in American history.

In 1819, the 238-ton Essex set sail from Nantucket on a routine voyage for whales. Fifteen months later, the unthinkable happened: in the farthest reaches of the South Pacific, the Essex was rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale. Its twenty-man crew, fearing cannibals on the islands to the west, decided instead to sail their three tiny boats for the distant South American coast.

Whether you consider this scandalous or not, I will admit I saw the film based upon this book first. I know, what an outrage.

I’ll double that outrage a little here because I did actually like the film in addition. I hear a lot of people rail on the movie that is adapted from this book but I don’t know, it really got me curious about reading the book so I feel like that counts as a success? I also read Moby Dick while in high school (not for school, mind you), so I felt doubly required to read this book after seeing the movie. Either way, I’m not doing a film review so let’s move on.

I’ll begin with the very first of many compliments I have towards Philbrick’s book, In The Heart of The Sea. Its very nostalgic of Moby Dick in the way it reads. Of course I’m reading a historical account of the entire journey leading up to the event that inspired Moby Dick, but Philbrick clearly pays homage to Melville's novel through direct mention and following his example in terms of the story's structure. Though, fun side thought, with Philbrick's book now in existence, we can simply add yet another struggle to trying to read Moby Dick: Which book is paying homage to which?

Refocusing on Philbrick's book with winks to Melville's. Once again, we get to learn about the whaling world and, as an added bonus, Philbrick fills us in on the state of the whaling business as a whole before and after this event occurs. Following this, the spirit of whaling is in full effect, and many themes found in Melville’s novel are revisited. The major themes of race and religion are explored in great detail, ranging from the segregation of the African crew from the European to an exploration of the sailor’s struggle between fate and free will.

Shortly after the discovery of this nostalgic layer, we meet our crew and their struggle with a disparaging season of whaling. Falling further into debt with the ship’s owner due to inexperienced, clumsy whaling and storms damaging the ship, the stakes climb as the crew desperately make their way towards the fateful encounter with the sperm whale that inspired Melville’s novel.

In an effort to keep to a review with minor spoilers, I’ll move onto the event in question. In 1819, an eighty-five foot male sperm whale (enter real-life Moby Dick) rammed the Essex, not once, but twice. This, as you can imagine, begins the crew’s ninety-day sailing in three tiny whale boats to South America.

For those who didn’t have the chance to pick up Moby Dick (It’s ok, its a wonderful piece of literature but by far not the most thrilling throughout), imagine my heartbreaking shock to find pages dedicated to the crew’s need to turn to cannibalism to survive this disaster. The original book literally ends at the white whale’s departure and Ishmael clinging to a crew mate’s coffin, watching the beast vanish into the depths. No cannibalism mentioned.

Perhaps not so strangely I'm ok with the occurrence of cannibalism here, only heartbroken to imagine the scarring that inevitably came from these poor men having to eat their own to survive. Philbrick's account on the true story that inspired Melville's timeless classic is gripping and completely heart wrenching. What's more, years after my having read Moby Dick, it was a true pleasure to read the true story behind the legendary sea monster and the crew that suffered the fateful encounter.

The marriage of In The Heart Of The Sea and Moby Dick

From left to right: In The Heart Of The Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, Moby Dick by Herman Melville (2003 edition), and Moby Dick by Herman Melville (most recent edition) with a forward included by Nathaniel Philbrick.

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