Marty Reeder's Reviews > In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
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Feb 08, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: acquired, bedroom-bookshelf

This was my idea first.

My wife got me Nathaniel Philbrick's Sea of Glory for my birthday looooong ago. I loved reading the fascinating story of a little known sailing expedition by a increasingly tyrannical leader. I needed to read more from this guy. I found out that the book that gave him fame was In the Heart of the Sea. I ordered it immediately. In the mean time, I found out that it was the tale of the boat whose experience was the inspiration for Moby Dick. Yikes, I thought, now I've got to read Moby Dick! One does not just read Moby Dick, I found ... so In the Heart of the Sea sat, tempting me, on my to-read shelf, waiting for me to pick up the not-so-tempting Moby Dick. In the interim, I read Philbrick's informative Mayflower. Though interesting, it was a step below Sea of Glory, which further dampened my resolve to begin the domino process that would take me to In the Heart of the Sea. Finally, thanks to a student choosing to read Moby Dick, I was forced to read it. I did and--eventually--loved it, though it was a grueling process! After I was done, I felt I needed some recovery time and In the Heart of the Sea fell to the wayside ... for five years.

Then, over my Christmas Break, I was killing some time with the kids watching some upcoming movie trailers and I saw Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea. How dare he?! That was my idea. Granted, it was my idea that I'd forgotten about for half a decade or so, but still! I knew that with the advent of the movie, now everyone was going to find themselves reading the book and asking me about it and telling me about it and seeing if I'd heard about it and ... PEOPLE! It was my idea waaaay before Ron Howard's! In my righteous indignation I picked up the book and read it in a week's time.

And that took me back to the Philbrick that I enjoy. When he is at the top of his game, he is a storyteller historian. He submerges himself into the characters, setting, and events. At times, I think, that can be taxing for less-history-enthusiasts as they get their chapters on Nantucket and whaling. But hey, I went through 200 something pages of nothing before getting to the exciting part of Moby Dick. So a couple chapters is nothing. After setting up the culture of the era, Philbrick meticulously and respectfully unfolds the story to us in a personal, exciting manner. The lows are devastating, the cannibalism--horrifying ... yet also strangely understandable given their circumstances, a credit to Philbrick's ability to place the reader in the situation. In the end, the tale is gripping throughout and sheds light on a fascinating group of characters and events. The careful following of the characters after the event is just the kind of resolution needed for such a traumatic story.

I think the only thing that could have elevated the book's status for me would be some retrospection. I appreciate Philbrick's hands-off, no-preaching approach, but I also feel that there are themes underlying here that could be revealed and opened up for contemporary relevance and discussion. Without pontificating, I trust Philbrick enough to help us take these events from over a century ago and match them to our modern world. For instance, the commercial dependence on whale oil could make a fascinating parallel to our dependence on fossil fuels. The extremes that companies and men went to in order to hunt those whales, and what it led to ... how does that apply to our current commercial state and dependence? I wouldn't want a condemnation of anything, just a respectful opening of dialogue--of which I sense there is a lot to be found.

That is just a slight example of where I think Philbrick misses an opportunity for expanding his picture. But I won't complain too much. The smaller picture is still absorbing and well worth the read. Especially because I hear they're making a movie out of it now. You should check it out!
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