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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
In the stirring climax to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, the whaleship Pequod is sunk in an epic battle with a giant white whale. Contemporary readers, however, might not realize that Melville's fiction was based on an actual event: the 1821 sinking of the Nantucket whaleship Essex by an enormous sperm whale. Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea details the ill-fated journey of the Essex, illuminating a terrifying drama not included in Moby-Dick -- the fate of the survivors after their ship was sunk.
In the early 1800s, whaling brought prosperity to the quirky Quaker town of Nantucket. Competition was fierce for spots aboard the whaling ships (when it came to whaling, the Quakers were anything but pacifists). The ships would hunt whales for their spermaceti oil and would return only after filling their quota -- sometimes after two or three years, and sometimes not at all. While the whalers were away, their wives, many of whom were widowed by the sea, ran the families and the town.
Whale hunting was backbreaking, nauseating work. Of course, for the crew of the Essex, whale hunting was far preferable to the rigors and terrors of sheer survival in the vast Pacific. At the end of Moby-Dick, only one man lives; meanwhile, the Essex has 20 initial survivors. Dividing themselves into three small whaleboats, they try to maintain proximity and hope. But the endless salt water and searing sun are merciless, while the food supply and fresh water are scarce.
Hopelessly adrift, the captain chooses to aim for distant South American shores rather than the closer Marquesas Islands. The reason: tales of cannibalistic natives on the Marquesas. The decision proves ill-fated and regrettably ironic. In the grim, grisly weeks and months ahead, the sailors exhaust every available food source, even the occasional giant Galápagos tortoise. One by one, crew members starve. Finally, they draw straws, with the loser becoming the next meal. Miraculously, three full months after the Essex was rammed and sunk, two of the whaleboats are spotted, and several of the crew are saved by passing vessels. Forever changed by their epic, tragic experiences, the Essex survivors return to Nantucket, only to endure the strange legacy of having escaped death by consuming the flesh of fellow townsfolk.
By highlighting the facts behind the Moby-Dick fiction, Philbrick discovers a true story as harrowing as the recent failed ascents of Mt. Everest. Concludes Philbrick: "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...too troubling, too complex to fit comfortably into a chamber of commerce brochure." (Brenn Jones)