Thursday, November 19, 2020

Review: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
Penguin Putnam
Publication Date: May 8th, 2020
Hardcover. 302 pages

About In the Heart of the Sea:

"In 1819, the 238-ton Essex set sail from Nantucket on a routine voyage for whales. Fifteen months later, the unthinkable happened: in the furthest reaches of the South Pacific, the Essex was rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale. Its twenty-man crew, fearing cannibals on the islands to the west, decided instead to sail their three tiny boats for the distant South American coast. They would eventually travel over 4,500 miles. The next three months tested just how far humans could go in their battle against the sea as, one by one, they succumbed to hunger, thirst, disease, and fear. 

Nathaniel Philbrick brings an incredible story to life, fro the intricacies of Nantucket's whaling economy and the mechanics of sailing a square-rigger to the often mysterious behavior of whales. But it is his portrayal of the crew of the Essex that makes this a heart-rending book. These were not romantic adventurers, but young working men, some teenagers, just trying to earn a living in the only way they knew how. They were a varied lot: the ambitious first mate, Owen Chase, whose impulsive nature failed at a crucial moment, then drew him to a more dangerous course; the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, whose long-lost account of the ordeal, written at age seventy-one, provides new insights into the story; and Captain George Pollard, who was forced to take the most horrifying step if any of his men were to survive. 

This is a timeless account of the human spirit under extreme duress, but it is also a story about a community, and about the kind of men and women who lived in a forbidding, remote island like Nantucket—a pioneer story that explores how we became who we are, and our peculiar blend of spiritualism and violence. It is also a tragic tale of survival against all odds. Its richness of detail, its eloquence, and its command of history make In the Heart of the Sea a vital book about America."

In the epilogue of In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick states that "the Essex disaster is not a tale of adventure. It is a tragedy that happens to be one of the greatest true stories ever told," and I really could not agree more with that sentiment. As we all know, I am a sucker for any sort of disaster and survival story, particularly if they take place in the arctic/antarctic regions or out on the sea (or both!), so this is a book that I've had sitting on my shelf for a while waiting for me to read it. This is another one that I don't think I'll be forgetting about anytime soon.
In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of the Essex, a whaleship from Nantucket--what was one the whaling center of the world--that was rammed and eventually sunk in the South Pacific ocean by a sperm whale in 1820. If this sounds at all familiar, it's because the Essex is the inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby Dick, in which a whale similarly wrecks a ship. As a result, twenty men were left stranded in three whaleship boats in the middle of the ocean with thousands of miles between them and any known safety. All they had were some sails and navigational tools to find their way. 
Philbrick is a nonfiction author that I absolutely plan to read more from, as I found In the Heart of the Sea nearly impossible to put down. Although the story itself is fascinating on its own, the way that Philbrick brought the nonfiction account together into a cohesive narrative was excellent and truly allowed for me to immerse myself into this account. Not only does he tell of the steadfastness and determination of the men on board, but he also highlights that strengths and flaws in Captain Pollard's leadership, the racism that abounded, the attitudes of the men on board, the arrogance of men who think they can take unnecessary risks for their own gain, the horrible impact of whaling on whale populations at the time, and so many more truly incredible themes. There was a great underlying discussion of wealth and how wealth-related boundaries and distinctions affected all aspects of whaling that was incorporated well, also.
What I really liked about Philbrick's narrative was how he brought together a wide variety of sources that exist on the whaleship Essex tragedy in order to give a well-rounded view and to point out areas where certain sources left out information or altered it in some way. I also appreciated his focus on the fate of the black members of the crew of the Essex and how their experiences differed considerably from their white counterparts. He notes that in many of the eyewitness accounts from survivors they leave out some critical points of the narrative, such as the fact that none of the black crew members survived and that, as mentioned, they often had fairly different experiences aboard a whaleship than white men. Another layer to this is that among the white men there was an additional division between off-islanders and Nantucketers, and Philbrick is firm in pointing out that the Nantucketers seems to fair the best out of all members of the Essex--whether that's from sheer hardiness and luck or a result of treatment and in-group camaraderie is not firmly known, but it certainly provides for some important discussion consideration that I personally thought proved vital to learning about this tragic wreck.
One of the things that most fascinates me about tragedies such as the Essex is how the various types of stress and situations that these men encountered affected their psyche. Because of this interest, I was excited by how much Philbrick explored topics about how the mental state is affected by the stress, starvation, and myriad of other factors that played into this experience. It's extremely apparent that Philbrick not only dove deep into researching the account of the Essex, but also into topics such as the psychology of tragedies and survival in order to develop a well-rounded and detailed exploration of all aspects of this tragedy.

No matter how many survival nonfiction accounts I read, I never seem to be able to comprehend or get over just how resilient humans can be. It always strikes me to see men such as those from the Essex, battle through near-starvation and dehydration and almost dangle on the edge of death for so long when i feel like in other areas of life we are so often reminded of how fragile the human body is. These stories really remind me that it's always worth it to keep fighting no matter how desperate the situation or how easy it seems to just give up instead. I think that's one reason I can't get enough of these stories, that despite situations that feel utterly hopeless, there's always a reason to just keep pushing towards the destination, because you never know what can happen. I confess I"m usually a rather cynical person, but there's something about these stories that always get to me.

Overall, it's an easy five stars from me! If you enjoy nonfiction, survival stories, sea wrecks, or simply a riveting narrative, then you really need to pick up In the Heart of the Sea. I promise you won't regret it.
Also: if you have any great survival/sea-wreck/etc. stories, please do recommend them!


  1. I love survival stories, I'll have to check this one out!

  2. Wow, this really sounds good! I had no idea Moby Dick was based on a true story. Thanks for sharing!