Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

In the Heart of the Sea

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

The wreck of the whaling ship Essex, in 1820, was a maritime disaster well known during the nineteenth century. An account for schoolchildren even appeared in McGuffey's Eclectic Reader. Today the disaster is is remembered primarily as the incident that inspired Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

National Book Award winner In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick, begins with the peculiar island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, an insular, even xenophobic, community whose only occupation was whaling. Further background includes details of whaling activities, such as boiling whale blubber into oil on board ship.

Then Philbrick delivers an exciting story of the last voyage of the Essex. An analytical composite of eyewitness accounts, Philbrick notes differences between versions and discusses issues such as the nature of leadership in disasters and the effects of starvation and dehydration.

After the wreck, the crew of the Essex sailed thousands of miles in small open whaling boats. Afraid of the "cannibal islands" of the South Pacific, the New Englander crew foolishly headed east across the Pacific toward South America. Amazingly, two of the boats were rescued in separate incidents near South America.

Owen Chase, the first mate, who commanded one of these boats, published a ghostwritten account of the journey within months of rescue. He told a terrifying tale of survival and cannibalism. Yet the story of the other boat, commanded by the overwhelmed Captain George Pollard, was even more lurid: The boat's occupants, friends from childhood, drew lots to be murdered for food. The event, when it became known, was an international sensation.

Original sources can be found in a separate volume, The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale: First-Person Accounts (Penguin Classics), edited by Nathaniel Philbrick and Thomas Philbrick, including Chase's account, a newly discovered manuscript by the ship's cabin boy, notes by Melville, and a number of other contemporary sources.

Like the ship Pequod in Melville's Moby-Dick, the Essex was attacked, while whaling in the Pacific, by an angry whale. Although the drama of the Essex begins where Moby-Dick leaves off, the story of the Essex, like the novel Moby-Dick, is psychological rather than an adventure or a mystery. As a story of survival, the wreck of the Essex is as interesting and relevant today as it was nearly two hundred years ago.

Copyright © 2007 by Heidi Boudro