Beneath the Heart of the Sea by Owen Chase
ARC, e-book, 112 pages
April 1, 2015
Source: Received from Publisher via Netgalley
A tragic yet riveting narration of life and death and man against the elements, this is an extreme account of shipwreck survival. On the morning of November 20, 1820, in the Pacific Ocean 2,000 miles from the coast of South America, an enraged sperm whale rammed the Nantucket whaleship Essex. As the boat began to sink, her crew of 20, including first mate Owen Chase, grabbed what little they could before piling into frail boats and taking to the open seas. So began their four-month ordeal and struggle for survival. This is a bleak story, only eight men survived having endured starvation and dehydration, giving in to cannibalism, murder, and insanity. Owen Chase recorded the extraordinary account in his autobiography, originally published in 1821.When I read on a subject, especially if it is about some type of disaster, I like to try to read books that approach the subject from different angles if possible: non-fiction, fiction, memoir, film, etc. I had my eye on reading In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick and knew that there was a film of the same name that was being released – but until seeing this one while browsing the Netgalley shelves, I had no idea that anyone who had survived wrote about the events surrounding the wreck (there are actually 2, the other is Thomas Nickerson a survivor in the same boat with Owen Chase).
I approach this review in the same manner that I approach one of the classics because they share the similarity that they were written in another time and in a very different style than we expect today. Additionally, it being a memoir, I do not feel comfortable judging the style of the retelling as this is a man recounting what was the worst experience of his life – it just doesn’t feel proper. However, I do have a few thoughts.
This book cuts right to the chase – there are two short chapters about the events of the trip leading up to the sinking of the ship and their subsequent struggle for survival. Even during the chapter of the sinking and survival, there are no frills or tangents – just the facts, so it can be a little dry at times. Even when he recounts how afraid or ecstatic the crew were, you don’t feel the emotion. But I got through this with the fact that it was a man of the 19th century writing this and of course wanting to show himself in a certain way – however it never felt like he was trying to paint himself the hero.
The one thing that did bug me throughout the read was how he recounted what happened on each day and recounted the longitude and latitude measurements of certain things happening when they were at sea. Chase tells the reader early on after they escaped in the whale boats that he had paper and pen, but did not record the events because it would have been too difficult with the nature of the sea and that the paper and ink would have been ruined by the water. I’m sure that there would have had to have been a loss of track of time during 90+ days being stranded at sea with the effects of hunger/thirst/and exposure constantly upon them. So I think the inclusion of the dates and measurements was a little overstepping and I took them all with a grain of salt.
I found this to be a well detailed account of the events that these men experienced without added flourishes or color commentary. A quick, straightforward, read if you are looking to round out your experience before or after reading In the Heart of the Sea. Also, for the record, if you are interested in the account by Thomas Nickerson, it is titled The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale published by Penguin Books. It would have been interesting to see the ordeal told from a man in one of the other rescued boats, since the two had been separated, but at least this way you can compare how two people who had the same experience saw the events.
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