I was vaguely aware of the sinking of the whaleship Essex, and its role as the inspiration for Moby-Dick when I heard that there was going to be a movie* about it staring one of the many Marvel Chrises and that the movie was based on a book of the same name. In the Heart of the Sea is a book about 19th century history, sailing, oceans and a story of survival for some but not all? I was in.
In case you are similarly vague on the details, in 1820 the Essex sailed from Nantucket what was then a routine expedition for whales in the Pacific Ocean. Fifteen months later, in the watery desert of the South Pacific, it was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale. Its twenty-man crew, fearing the islands to the west, decided to make for the 3,000-mile-distant coast of South America in three twenty-five foot boats. During ninety days at sea under atrocious conditions, the survivors clung to life as starvation and dehydration began to take their tolls.
This seems a relatively straightforward story, and it is. But what Nathaniel Philbrick brings to the table in In the Heart of the Sea is the context of the actions and decisions of the men on the ship and the culture of the island that sent its men tens of thousands of miles away for years at a time to harvest the sperm whale from further and further reaches of the ocean. Using primary source documents and modern research a narrative of the full experience is brought to light for the modern reader. That in addition to the history of the whaling industry, of Nantucket Island, and of the suffering of the crew of the Essex are all bound together and make for both an interesting and edifying read that is powerfully engrossing.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.
*based on the trailer alone it looks as though the movie has fictioned up the tale again, but it still looks breathtaking.