Who doesn’t love a tragic book about men against nature? I’ve read Moby Dick and enjoyed it, but did not know the Essex’s sinking contributed as inspiration for the tale. I was completely unaware of this little thrilling bit of history until I saw a preview for the movie starring Chris Hemsworth. Thank you, Chris, I still haven’t seen your movie, but I’ve read the book. That is actually pretty accurate, when I see previews of movies based on books, it only encourages me to read the book first. Sometimes I get to the movie, sometimes I don’t.
Philbrick is a master of non fiction, and this event is in his wheelhouse. He sets about recreating a culture, lifestyle, and profession that seem foreign (and a bit abhorrent) to us now. One could almost feel what it was like to live in Nantucket and be part of that community that embraced the violent industry of whaling as a direct contrast to a pious Quaker society. Philbrick opens those dichotomies as he describes each of the crew members who sailed out with the Essex for a two year whaling expedition. Captain George Pollard led the men out in 1819 on the voyage that would take them around Terra del Fuego and into the South Pacific Ocean for new hunting grounds as they’d depleted the whale sources closer to home. Captain Pollard’s genial style of leader contrasted with his first mate Owen Chase’s more brash style of leadership and as a result, the men continually looked to Chase for discipline and decision making. They encountered troubles from the start, but pushed on. Philbrick takes the time to introduce the industry as well as the characters and how they had to work together. The vivid descriptions of whaling, the killing, the oil collection, the waste are pretty sickening, but accurate. Eventually, a large bull whale attacks their ship and manages to capsize it. The surviving crew are left adrift in three whaleboats. This is where the rest of the story begins. The crew are faced with the impossible choice of which way to go, the Pacific wasn’t the friendly vacation destination that we think of today. It was largely unexplored and various stories of ritual cannibalism and unfriendly island natives were disconcerting. They decided on trying to sail/float 3000 miles across open sea. It was a desperate gamble with sickness and starvation leading to even more desperate choices.
Philbrick uses the biographies, and autobiographies of various crew members as well as newspaper accounts of the events as they unfolded. I particularly enjoyed the followup so as a reader I could find out how they ended their days. The end of their lives also coincides with the end of Nantucket as a city of prominence due to alternate fuels. This book is very readable. Philbrick sticks to the story, but uses just enough supposition and editorializing to see the author’s viewpoint without getting heavy handed. I greatly enjoyed this book and Philbrick’s style, so much that I have a few of his other books on my selves waiting to be read.