Book Review: ‘In the Heart of the Sea…’ by Nathaniel Philbrick
March 11, 2015
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex is a historical, non-fiction novel written by American author and Nantucket maritime historian Nathaniel Philbrick. With his knowledge of maritime history, Philbrick masterfully combines the two known written accounts from survivors of the Nantucket whaleship, the Essex, that was sunk by an angry sperm whale. An event that led to horrors such as cannibalism, but also inspired Hermann Melville’s famous novel Moby Dick. Due to Phibrick’s descriptive detail, this novel won the American National Book Award in 2000, and will provide the foundations for a movie of the same title to be released later this year.
The story arc follows the tragic two year journey of the whaleship Essex led by Captain Pollard and his arrogant First Mate, Owen Chase. The latter being one of the surviving accounts that this novel is based off. As this particular interpretation of the event is often biased towards those in charge, the second account of the cabin boy, 14 year old Thomas Nickerson, balances the perspectives on board. Giving a voice to the men in the lower ranks of the ship’s crew.
The historical information is delivered just when it is needed in order to explain the foreign viewpoints and actions of the sailors, preventing any boredom that is often associated with these kinds of novels. The creative technique used by Philbrick to explain technical whaling jargon was one of the best aspects of the novel. Meaning the information given is delivered to provide some of the most graphic imagery in the whole novel.
First the mates hacked a hole in the whale’s side, just above the fin, into which was inserted a giant hook suspended from the mast. Then the immense power of the ship’s windlass was brought to bear, heeling the ship over on its side as the block-and-tackle system attached to the hook creaked with strain. Next the mates cut out the start of a five-foot-wide strip of blubber adjacent to the hook. Pulled by the tackle attached to the windlass, the strip was gradually torn from the whale’s carcass, slowly spinning it around, until a twenty-foot-long strip, dripping with blood and oil suspended from the rigging.”
The imagery comes at a cost however, as other sections of the novel can appear long-winded and affect the pace of the story. This is especially noticeable in the beginning when the first chapter describes the life of Nantucketeers. Although interesting, some readers may wonder why so much information is needed.
However, it is not just the matter of history that is prevalent throughout this novel. Naturally, the relationship between the crew members along with economic struggle of the times played a crucial part in how this event occurred.
The two written accounts mentioned earlier, provide an intriguing interpretation of the relationship between those in charge and the crew. Especially in Chase’s account, where the strained relationship between Captain Pollard and his first mate appears to be the focus and reason behind the tragedy. From this, it instantly becomes obvious how this affects the crew through Nickerson. He witnesses an unfair hierarchy that begins to make many struggles for the average crewman, who are completely ignored by Chase and his captain. Philbrick has done a fantastic job in combining these two complicated scenarios to create one that makes a coherent story.
As a result of these conflicting views being joined, Philbrick often goes into possible perspectives of the other men on board in an attempt to explain why certain actions are taken. This is particularly noticeable when describing the mass fire that occurred while the Essex collected tortoises in the Galapagos Islands. Not only did the fire destroy the entire living population of a small island, but it was later revealed to be result of an accident by one of the crew on board. Philbrick goes to particular detail on how this could have possibly occurred, narrowing it down to a sick joke:
On the morning of October 22, Thomas Chappel, a boatsteerer from Plymouth England, decided to play a prank.”
What I found most fascinating about this particular novel was the strange black hole where symbolism and metaphors are normally found. Even for a history novel, there isn’t much of a moral lesson to be learnt. However, on every page there is something to learn about life at sea in the 19th century. A fact that surprised me about three pages in was that ‘right whales’ are named as such because they were ‘the right whale to kill’ and were one of the first whales ever named.
Despite being slow to begin with, In the Heart of the Sea was a fascinating read that not only gave me great knowledge about whaling, but also finally allowed me to understand the language of Moby Dick. If you’re interested in great historical tales, I highly recommend visiting Nathaniel Philbrick’s website to look at his other works, and to follow him on Facebook.
‘In the Heart of the Sea’ was published by Penguin Books in 200o.
The film of ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ will be released later in 2015…