Last year I wanted to read at least twenty books. I met that goal and went beyond by a few novels. This year, I’ve set my goal at 25 books. And, the first one I chose to read was found sitting on my own bookshelves, never read by me but read by one of my sons (I believe) years ago. It historical fiction, my favorite genre, and a doozy of a story!
The book I just finished is entitled, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. The author is Nathaniel Philbrick and it was published in the year 2000. However, the tale is one that takes place in the early 1820’s. It starts in the east coast whaling village of Nantucket, where an under provisioned whaleship with a new captain departs on a ship named Essex for a three year trip to “fish” for sperm whales in the Pacific Ocean. These whalers were home for three months at a time and at sea for three years! Some were very young, merely teenagers, at the time of the voyage.
The story centers around the twenty man crew and their encounter with an 85 foot long sperm whale who rams their ship, purposely – they believe, thousands of miles off the shore of South America. It describes their journey, both collectively as Nantucketers and non-islanders, as well as individually as they battle not only the elements found in the open ocean but also their individual moral compasses.
The men’s ship is destroyed and they flail almost aimlessly around the pacific ocean for 90 days divided up onto three small whaleboats that they equip with the masts of the Essex. Decisions are made, most of them poor. The men encounter unrelenting thirst, hunger, fear and death.
I do not want to provide much more information than that to avoid spoilers. But, be aware that this novel is not for the faint of heart or for those who think they could not “do absolutely anything” to survive and return to civilization. Parts of the novel might shock and disgust you. But, it is a testament to upholding community expectations, making a livelihood, and the bravery that these men showed, as well as their sheer will to live.
More than just a story about the whaling industry of the 1800’s, the tragedy of the Essex delves into the Quaker community in Nantucket. The novel does not go into this in-depth but lets the reader know that this religious sect helped shape who these men were and how they’d handle their fates.
Astonishingly, I found out that the story of the Essex is the story upon which the famed Herman Melville based his classic novel Moby Dick. This amazed me! Having not been “required” to read classics in my formal post-graduate education (my degrees are science based), I have not read Moby Dick, but might have to do so now.
I did not think I’d enjoy reading about whalers, or open sea tragedies, but I did! This book took me only about ten days to finish. I read parts of it during the day and our our trip to see my parents. It was fascinating.
While we were in Maui in 2009, we went to the Whaler’s Village Museum in Kaanapali. There, I remember being introduced to the whaler’s life in the 1800’s. The tragedy of the Essex took place before the Nantucketers would visit Hawaii for provisioning of their whale boats. They were truly in unexplored waters. It also must be remembered that the whalers in this novel are hunting sperm whales, not any of the more commonly heard about whales of today such as humpback and orcas.
Not all of the Essex crew members parished on this fateful trip past the Galapagos Islands in 1820, but what they did to survive will bother most of us in some way. Still, the telling of their tale is one not to be missed. So, even if you have read Moby Dick, I highly recommend reading In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick.