Book Review: “In the Heart of the Sea”

I love to read and read a lot–but I rarely finish a book quickly. It usually takes me a couple of weeks (or three) to finish a book.

Exception to the rule: In the Heart of the Sea, which I got for my birthday last Tuesday, started on Saturday, and finished this Monday. Granted, I spent a good portion of Saturday and Monday in the car, so I had an unusual amount of free time on my hands–but still, I couldn’t put this book down! Even on Saturday night after we got home from a long road trip, I sat down at the kitchen table and read “just one more chapter” because cliffhanger chapters are my mortal enemy. Delightful to write, yes, but dreadful to read 😉

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In the Heart of the Sea, written by Nathaniel Philbrick and published in 2001, is the story of the Nantucket whaleship the Essex, sunk in 1820 in the South Pacific by an enormous and very aggressive sperm whale. The crew, adrift in three small whaleboats, tried for ninety days to get to the coast of South America. Of the twenty men, only eight lived to tell the tale, surviving on hardtack, what few fish they could catch, and eventually, the bodies of their dead companions. (Gross, I know–but the author handled it well. I appreciated that.)

Of those eight survivors, two went on to write detailed accounts of the ordeal. The first, Owen Chase, was the 22-year-old first mate of the ship–in other words, he was second-in-command aboard the Essex. The other was Thomas Nickerson, the 14-year-old cabin boy. Chase wrote his account a year after the fact; Nickerson wrote his as an old man, at the insistence of a friend. In the Heart of the Sea depends heavily on both Chase and Nickerson’s books, and consequently, they are pretty much the main characters of the book. (The movie, which comes out in December, looks like it’ll be the same way.)

Of course, part of what makes the story of the Essex so intriguing is that it went on to inspire Herman Melville in his writing of Moby Dick. Years after the tragedy, Melville actually met Owen Chase’s son and got the whole story from him. Melville was fascinated by the story and Moby Dick is his fictionalized retelling of it.

The difference is, Moby Dick ends with the whale attacking the ship. In the Heart of the Sea goes far past the attack.

The book also gives an fascinating description of 19th-century Nantucket Island: predominately Quaker, hard-working, wealthy, but unostentatious. Whaling was what their community did best. The oil extracted from the sperm whales, after all, was 1820’s version of kerosene, and the men and ships coming out of Nantucket were the best whalers on the planet.

But it was the crew of the Essex that I found the most intriguing–especially where Captain George Pollard and First Mate Owen Chase were concerned.

Captain Pollard was a good guy. He was the kind of guy you’d want as your best friend. He was a friendly, kind, soft-spoken (except for that one time when the men complained–pre-wreck–that they weren’t getting enough food), and diplomatic captain. Everybody liked him. In fact, years later, he was a great favorite of the children of Nantucket thanks to his kindly, grandfatherly ways.

By contrast, I had my doubts about Owen Chase, regardless of the fact that Chris Hemsworth plays him in the movie. [Insert appalled gasps HERE.] He was pleasant as pleasant could be on shore, but once he got on a ship he turned into this arrogant, ambitious, sharp-tongued, pull-no-punches boss. If you dawdled on the deck around Owen Chase, you’d get your ears boxed. The crew grumbled about him behind his back because he was just so darn bossy.

But here’s the thing. It was all fine and dandy for Pollard to be the nicest guy on the planet, but once the ship wrecked in the middle of nowhere, his crew needed him to show a stiff spine and make decisions quickly and without any obvious self-doubt. And it was perfectly appropriate for Chase to be a bossy first mate–that’s what first mates are for–but in a time of extreme deprivation the men needed him to show them that he did care deeply about them.

I really liked Pollard. He seemed like a genuinely kind person. But he was not cut out for command. He’d make a decision, but if Chase and the second mate, Matthew Joy, proposed a second option, Pollard inevitably wavered and conceded to them, whether for good or for ill. He didn’t know how to stick to his guns in a crisis situation. And as the book explained, a diplomatic attitude is usually a good thing–except during a disaster, when firm (but compassionate!) leadership is necessary.

Chase ended up as the real leader. He was the one who pressed the men forward, came up with solutions, and urged them to keep moving east towards South America no matter what. On the one hand he threatened to shoot anyone who tried to steal their precious food–but at the same time he comforted the men in his boat and urged them to never give up hope.

So in the end, In the Heart of the Sea is as much a lesson in leadership as it is a very, very well-written historical account. I highly recommend this book, especially if you enjoyed either the book or the movie Moby Dick. Or if you like maritime stories. Or if you just like history. In other words, I think it would be hard to dislike this book. I recommend it for older readers, thanks to a couple of disturbing scenes close to the end of the crew’s fateful voyage–but it’s still a great, engaging read.

One thought on “Book Review: “In the Heart of the Sea”

  1. It sounds like a great book! Your description of Pollard makes me think of Lieutenant Buckland from Horatio Hornblower. 🙂

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