Friday Reads: In the Heart of the Sea
This month the Narrative Nonfiction Book Club was all hands on deck to discuss In the Heart of the Sea: the tragedy of the whaleship Essex by Nantucket author, Nathaniel Philbrick. In a nutshell, the book recounts in harrowing detail how an angry 85-foot sperm whale stove in the Essex in late 1820 and the men, some of them, survived at sea for more than 90 days with little more than some hard tack (dry biscuits) and their wits.
Not just a survival story of man against nature, we also are provided with thoroughly researched and well-presented historical context of Nantucket culture in the 19th Century and the whaling industry. The shipwreck was well-known during its time, in part because the men resorted to cannibalism to survive. Also noteworthy was the rarity of a whale, and an unusually large whale at that, attacking a ship. The event was the inspiration for the climactic scene in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.
There was so much to talk about that the hour was quickly over, quite unlike the whaling voyages we were discussing. Although a few in the group had read the book before, and many of us had some familiarity with whaling, we all were thoroughly engaged and felt enriched for having read this book.
If you are looking for an excellent work of narrative nonfiction about historical New England, then In the Heart of the Sea is for you. Look for it on the Staff Picks shelf soon.