Monday, May 18, 2009

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

This was a real find - thanks Paddy. It's the story of the the ill-fated Essex, a whaling ship rammed by a sperm whale and sunk in the middle of the South Pacific in 1820. The crew were cast adrift in three small boats. A couple of them kept diaries so there is a wealth of visceral detail about what happened. It ended of course in cannibalism but we got all the stages before that with Philbrick showing an impressive knowledge of the pathology and psychology of starvation and dehydration.

While the story is gripping, the real beauty of this book is the wealth of incidental detail. Life on Nantucket at the height of the whaling boom is lovingly depicted with details of how the Quaker women amused themselves while the men were away on their lengthy voyages. We also told what butchering a whale at sea was like -a bloody inferno. The head was a particularly important source of oil and was lovingly tapped of its contents.

Melville went to sea subsequently with one of the survivors, and the story inspired him to write Moby Dick.

Forget Patrick O'Brian, read this.