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Monday, May 23, 2016

Book Review: In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
by Nathaniel Philbrick
Unabridged, 10 hr. 3 min.
Penguin Audio
Scott Brick (Narrator)
June 20, 2005
★★★★ ½☆

Genre: Non-Fiction, History

Source: Purchased the audiobook through Audible
In the Heart of the Sea brings to new life the incredible story of the wreck of the whaleship Essex—an event as mythic in its own century as the Titanic disaster in ours, and the inspiration for the climax of Moby-Dick. In a harrowing page-turner, Nathaniel Philbrick restores this epic story to its rightful place in American history.
In 1820, the 240-ton Essex set sail from Nantucket on a routine voyage for whales. Fifteen months later, in the farthest reaches of the South Pacific, it was repeatedly rammed and sunk by an eighty-ton bull sperm whale. Its twenty-man crew, fearing cannibals on the islands to the west, made for the 3,000-mile-distant coast of South America in three tiny boats. During ninety days at sea under horrendous conditions, the survivors clung to life as one by one, they succumbed to hunger, thirst, disease, and fear.
In the Heart of the Sea tells perhaps the greatest sea story ever. Philbrick interweaves his account of this extraordinary ordeal of ordinary men with a wealth of whale lore and with a brilliantly detailed portrait of the lost, unique community of Nantucket whalers. Impeccably researched and beautifully told, the book delivers the ultimate portrait of man against nature, drawing on a remarkable range of archival and modern sources, including a long-lost account by the ship's cabin boy. At once a literary companion and a page-turner that speaks to the same issues of class, race, and man's relationship to nature that permeate the works of Melville, In the Heart of the Sea will endure as a vital work of American history.
I have had several of Nathaniel Philbrick’s books on my TBR for quite some time and have not had the chance to get to any of them until recently. I’m really happy that I chose In the Heart of the Sea as my first book of his to read for a few reasons (none of these were reasons that I actually chose to pick up the book, however):
  1. It was coming out as a film in December 2015 (a few months after the time I started the book) starring Chris Hemsworth and I have this thing about reading a book before seeing a film
  2. I was traveling to Nantucket later during the month in which I was reading it and this book provides a lot of history of the island. I had no idea that this tiny island was so important in whaling history
  3. It reads like an adventure story
Like many today, I had never heard about the attack on the whaleship Essex, so that was one of the things that caught my attention right away. Of all of the subjects Philbrick writes on, this was the one that I had absolutely no experience with before, so I figured it would be interesting to learn something new. Spending my entire life in New England, the history of the whaling industry is not something new to me. We learned about it in school during all those history lessons on the state (Connecticut’s state animal is even the sperm whale because of its historical importance) and I have been to Mystic Seaport many times where I have climbed aboard historic whaleships. So, while not familiar with the actual event, I was familiar with the subject matter and had adequate context.

Philbrick did a phenomenal job with this tale of epic disaster. While it is non-fiction and reads almost like a narrative, I hesitate to outright call it narrative non-fiction, because it doesn’t quite fit. It is not entirely storytelling, but you get more into what is going on beyond the straight text of who did what and when. He has the ability to more accurately get into the minds of many of his characters because there are several accounts that exist from survivors of the actual shipwreck for him to work with. I think this plays heavily into why this book felt so real. Philbrick also spends time building up the context for the reader on the whaling industry as well as the history of Nantucket, where the Essex was out of (in case you are not from New England and do not have as much background on the whaling industry). As the ship was on a whaling voyage in the far South Pacific Ocean, we get background on many of the islands that they encountered and the eco-systems that they affected (some that are still struggling from those encounters).

There are some pretty gross moments in this book in the description of the processing of whales after being caught as well as in some of the descriptions of cannibalism that happened while the men were afloat at sea. Don’t be listening to the book while eating lunch like I was, just a warning!! I was very curious as to how much of this they were going to include into the film version. I would certainly not want to be shipwrecked, Philbrick makes their plight so real to the reader.

A note on the cover: I don’t like it. I think they were going for the somber, desolation of the open ocean on the minds of the shipwrecked crew, but in terms of drawing in a reader on a subject they are likely entirely unfamiliar with, it leaves something to be desired. I think it would be much better served with the inclusion of a whale or ship or something on the cover to clue the casual observer in to the fact that this is a book that has something to do with whaling or a shipwreck. If you just read the title (without the subtitle) and see the cover, you could easily mistake it for a mystery, love story, anything other than non-fiction about a whale attack in the 1800s.

Overall, I think Philbrick really hit this one (his first book) out of the park and I am looking forward to reading more from him as well as seeing the movie adaptation.

I have to put the narrator, Scott Brick, among my top tier of audio narrators. I have now listened to him read two books, In the Heart of the Sea and Salt by Mark Kerlansky, and he also happens to be the narrator of quite a few other books that just happen to be on my TBR. While in my previous review of Salt I described the audio production as “middling”, my issue was more with the book itself not being a good one to listen to because of the type of subject matter and way the book is written, rather than having any real issue with the narration itself. I found Brick’s narration during In the Heart of the Sea to be quite excellent. This is the type of non-fiction that lends itself well to the audio format because it reads like an action/adventure, which happens to be the type of book that Brick narrates more often (Cussler and Clancy are just a few of the author’s he has extensive work with). I thought that he had great pacing and tone to fit the needs of each passage and it kept me engaged with the material. His narration made the event even more dramatic (but not in a corny way) which I appreciated. I very much look forward to encountering his narration again in the future.

For more about narrator Scott Brick and his works, you can visit his website.

If you would like to preview In the Heart of the Sea before reading it, why not try out this excerpt of the book?

You can watch a segment from BookTV of the author discussing In the Heart of the Sea as well.

Reviews of this book by other bloggers:
Buy the Book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | RJ Julia

Also by Nathaniel Philbrick:

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution

Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, the US Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

Why Read Moby Dick?

Find Nathaniel Philbrick: Website | Blog | Facebook | Twitter

Stay tuned for more Whaleship Essex related posts this week!


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