In the Heart of the Sea
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The appeal of Dava Sobel's Longitude was, in part, that it illuminated a little-known piece of history through a series of captivating incidents and engaging personalities. Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea is certainly cast from the same mold, examining the 19th-century Pacific whaling industry through the arc of the sinking of the whaleship Essex by a boisterous sperm whale. The story that inspired Herman Melville's classic Moby-Dick has a lot going for it--derring-do, cannibalism, rescue--and Philbrick proves an amiable and well-informed narrator, providing both context and detail. We learn about the importance and mechanics of blubber production--a vital source of oil--and we get the nuts and bolts of harpooning and life aboard whalers. We are spared neither the nitty-gritty of open boats nor the sucking of human bones dry.

By sticking to the tried and tested Longitude formula, Philbrick has missed a slight trick or two. The epicenter of the whaling industry was Nantucket, a small island off Cape Cod; most of the whales were in the Pacific, necessitating a huge journey around the southernmost tip of South America. We never learn why no one ever tried to create an alternative whaling capital somewhere nearer. Similarly, Philbrick tells us that the story of the Essex was well known to Americans for decades, but he never explores how such legends fade from our consciousness. Philbrick would no doubt reply that such questions were beyond his remit, and you can't exactly accuse him of skimping on his research. By any standard, 50 pages of footnotes impress, though he wears his learning lightly. He doesn't get bogged down in turgid detail, and his narrative rattles along at a nice pace. When the storyline is as good as this, you can't really ask for more. --John Crace,

The ordeal of the whaleship Essex was an event as mythic in the nineteenth century as the sinking of the Titanic was in the twentieth. In 1819, the Essex left Nantucket for the South Pacific with twenty crew members aboard. In the middle of the South Pacific the ship was rammed and sunk by an angry sperm whale. The crew drifted for more than ninety days in three tiny whaleboats, succumbing to weather, hunger, disease, and ultimately turning to drastic measures in the fight for survival. Nathaniel Philbrick uses little-known documents-including a long-lost account written by the ship's cabin boy-and penetrating details about whaling and the Nantucket community to reveal the chilling events surrounding this epic maritime disaster. An intense and mesmerizing read, In the Heart of the Sea is a monumental work of history forever placing the Essex tragedy in the American historical canon.

Customer Reviews:

  • High seas survival
    'In the Heart of the Sea' is Nathaniel Philbrick's telling of the whale ship Essex and her last voyage. This true story has been noted as the inspiration for Melvilles - 'Moby Dick'. The tale is well written and provides some background into the whaling industry at that time, and the crew members on that ill-fated voyage.

    Captain Pollard embarks on this voyage as the new captain of the Essex. Along with the first mate Owen Chase and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, and eighteen others they set out for the Pacific whaling grounds in search of filling their hold with barrels of whale oil. The journey starts with mishap as the ship is 'knocked-over' on its side during a storm. The captain is convinced not to turn back and continues on.

    Once in the Pacific thay start filling their hold, and decide to head further west in search of whales. As the crew persue a pod of whales, the Essex is attacked by a bull male. The ship is struck twice and begins to sink. The crew salvage as much as possible from the sinking ship and eventually leave to head for land. Instead of heading to the nearby islands because of a fear of cannibals, the crew head for South American. This decision provse to be a fatal one for a majority of the crew.

    The book tells the grueling story of the survival of Pollard, Chase, Nicherson and Lawrence. We see the terrible effects of starvation and what drove these men to finally turn to cannibalism.

    This book is a great read for fans of Moby-Dick and of the terrible journey of survival. This tales reminds me of the other survival stories such as the Shackleton expedition, and 'Into Thin Air'. Enjoy!...more info
  • Perfectly Awsome
    Yes. Just read this book, cause its awsome. ...more info
  • Interesting Tidbits Within This Book
    There were some fascinating facts included in this book for people like myself (non-mariners!) who have never read Moby Dick. The code of "drawing lots" to see who will sacrifice themselves for the group; the lives of whalers and life in Nantucket during the whaling times; sperm whales as the source of energy (oil!) before the time of oil wells; the description of how a whale is parted out and the pecking order on a whaling ship.

    However. It took me three tries to read this book; I had nearly given up and the only thing that made me persevere was the book had been loaned to me by a friend and I was loathe to NOT finish reading it. The beginning of the book does not capture one's interest right away...I kept falling asleep. Finally, 2 months later, I finished the book. Let's just say that the book is not of the "could not put it down" variety, at least for me. But it did impart some interesting knowledge and provide food for thought.

    There were too many author opinions (regarding discrimination and fates of the blacks aboard the Essex) not to mention all the irrelevant information (the sperm whale that washed up on Nantucket in the late 1990's). That is why I believe it only deserves 2 stars.

    ...more info
  • Amazing Story
    As a nonfiction and disaster buff, of course this book caught my eye. This amazing story of survival was made all the better by Philbrick's skill at story-telling. The book is never dull. And he not only describes the shipwreck, but the whaling business and it's culture in detail. With frequent allusions to other shipwrecks and disasters, this story has only piqued my interest. ...more info
  • Short Review
    Engrossing tale based on the true events of the whaler Essex. Good background information provided by the author enhances the reading pleasure. Well written although not brilliant prose. I greatly enjoyed the story despite knowing little about whaling or seafaring. ...more info
  • Excellent and Enthralling Book from a most Perspicacious Author
    This harrowing, hair-raising adventure story and testament to American ingenuity and resourcefulness is a thrill to read. Philbrick recounts the disaster of the Whaleship Essex largely relying on a careful selection of accounts from the memoirs of First Mate Owen Chase and Boatsteerer Thomas Nickerson that are peppered with interesting and informative annotations from a wealth of other sources.

    Clearly the author has an advantage in writing about such an exciting and well documented story, but Philbrick sets himself apart in that he lacks the pretension and glibness of many contemporary historians. For example, nautical terms are used throughout, but not in way that is mired in the nitty-gritty (although the notes provide additional depth) and a clearly labeled illustration is quite enabling for the "coof" (off-islander) or layman reader. Furthermore, the numerous asides do not disrupt the story, but enhance it due to the thoughtfulness and subtly of the author.

    This is an excellent and enthralling book from a most perspicacious author. Like the piece of twine weaved together and preserved by Essex survivor Benjamin Lawrence to remind Lawrence of his experience, Philbrick creates quite a yarn that will ensure the survival of the story of the Whaleship Essex for generations to come. ...more info
  • Great read- one glaring factual error!
    A thoroughly fascinating read. Makes you realize what true hardship is. However, there is one glaring factual error. Philbrick refers to the 1972 Andes plane crash involving "soccer" players and leading to cannibalism among the passengers. Sorry, it was rugby players. Only rugby players would eat their own! Other than that this is a highly recommended book....more info
  • An American History Must-Read
    Nathanal Philbrick (author of the recent "Mayflower," another essential read) dug deep into the Nantucket whaling community and the true story of the loss of the Whaleship Essex. The story of the Essex, the one that inspired Melville's "The Whale" a.k.a. Moby , is one those essential stories that I believe every american should know. Philbrick's writing makes that lesson an easy one to absorb. What I like about his writing is that he leaves you with the impression that he did ALL the homework the world would allow on the subject.

    Like Joseph Ellis does with George Washinton in "His Excellency," Philbrick quite obviosuly did read everything there is on the subject before putting his own words down. Which is to say that the work doesn't leave you this opinion, or fact? Philbrick made himself the world's leading authority first....then wrote the book.

    Five Stars and secure on the Top 100 of my Must Read list....more info
  • Entertaining, gripping narrative
    This true story of the whaleship Essex caught and held my attention as I read through it as quickly as I could. Even though non-fiction, it reads like an adventurous novel---a much better read than Moby Dick.

    The author includes the historical context and taps several sources to provide details about the tragedy, as well as the whaling industry.

    I think this book has what it takes to appeal to all readers. It is insightful, reavealing, entertaining and suspenseful while being entirely unique.

    My wife and I both read it within a week and highly recommend it....more info
  • Great Read
    This was a Great read! Anyone looking for a book that is interesting and exciting, pick this one up. Just put it down and already placed an order for MAYFLOWER. Cant wait to dive into it....more info
  • Book Review
    This was a tremendous read for our book club. We all absolutely loved the content. It was a riveting read. This book made the rounds of our friends outside of our book group that love a good story. The Heart of the Sea was a book that inspired an interesting and at times confrontational conversation. Based on our pleasure upon reading this book, we, as a book group, are looking to reading the Mayflower story by the same author....more info
  • astonishing will to live, astonishing read
    I have read a couple of Nathaniel Philbricks' other books (Sea of Glory, and Mayflower) and knew I was in for a treat. His historical research and ability to portray events of resounding consequence in their contemporary contexts filled with very human characters is truly a gift. This book is no different. I had no particular interest in whaling itself and so this book had remained on my periphery for some time. I didn't know what I was missing.

    Philbrick pulls back the veil on whaling history and of course the Essex' crew themselves revealing mesmerizing scenes. Drawing from first hand accounts the author weaves a solid, continuous narrative of tragedy and triumph that ranks among the greatest survival feats of all time. I love reading tales of survival and this book ranks at the top alongside Alfred Lansing's landmark work, Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage. The thirst and starvation the men of the Essex faced is painted in such graphic detail that I have found myself stopping to contemplate each meal for the last several days after finishing the book. The book also offers a good case study in leadership styles under emergent situations in its comparisons of Capt. Pollard and First Mate Owen Chase. It may be tempting to think that reading about a group of men sailing, often just floating, on the ocean for months may tend to drag, but Philbrick's lens focuses us on both their outward deterioration and inward struggle, making the narrative a fascinating and disturbing spectacle. I certainly flew through this book much faster than the Essex crew lived it. From the anxiety building up to the whale's attack, over thousands of miles of starvation inducing, dehydrating, storming, undulating sea, to the final desperate hours and conclusion you will be as glued to these pages as the crew was to their boats. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of survival. It may come in handy someday.
    In a closing note, this book is not for the faint of heart. The narrative contains gruesome scenes of both whale harvesting and cannibalism. Also, I read this book on my Kindle and was delighted to find the illustrations still available. This has sadly not been the case with some other titles I read recently. Remember when you come to them the illustrations can be zoomed for better viewing. ...more info
  • Well Done
    Philbrick is a good writer. Sometimes I felt pulled between the history of Nantucket, an inside look into whaling and the story of the Essex. Each is interesting and deserves its own book. The story of the Essex is incredibly powerful, and I feel that Philbrick treated the terrible survival struggles of the crew at an arm's length. The details were there, just not the emotion. He came close, but this story - with the struggle, errors of judgment, tragedy and cannibalism, had the potential to stand with the classic tales of Bly or Shackleton, but this telling didn't quite deliver....more info
  • in the heart of the sea
    this is one of the finest books i've ever read. the story is fabulous and the author's delivery is perfect. however, it is VERY graphic. the content can be extremely disturbing if you are not interested in the worst events any human can experience. it is told from the perspective of the survivors....more info
  • horrifying
    Well written and horrifying account of the Essex. I am from Boston and I was not aware of the story. Found the book in a store on Nantucket a over the summer. I am glad I remembered to order it when I came home from vaca. If your looking for an adventure story, without a Disney ending,,,,then this book is for you. ...more info
  • Compelling and Entertaining History
    I thoroughly enjoyed this book about the sinking of the Essex, the story of which was the inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Apparently, the story of the Essex was well known at the time although not so much in modern times. The author does a wonderful job of drawing out the story from the original sources and presenting it in a compelling way. This is the type of non-fiction book that reads like a fictional thriller. Another strong point is that the author did not go on and on about certain superfluous details in a way that other authors in this genre tend to do. This book was just the right length to cover the story and do it justice. Highly recommended, especially for those with an interest in maritime history, survival, or just the sea itself. ...more info
  • All history should be so gripping.
    If everyone could write history like Philbrick, we'd have more history majors than you could count. To be fair, much of what makes this particular effort so page-turning is the story that Philbrick selects, but he deserves credit for smart selection too.

    This book recounts the tale of about 25 young men setting out from Nantucket in 1819 for a whaling voyage that would take them around the tip of South America and into the Pacific Ocean and was expected to last as long as two years - pretty typical for the time. Unfortunately for them, they would undergo a trial that would be so amazing that it would become the basis for Melville's Moby Dick.

    The Whaleship Essex is attacked by an 85 foot Sperm Whale, and sunk. The crew of the ship get into three small whale boats and attempts to sail more than 1,000 miles to the coast of South America after deciding against closer islands for fear of cannibals (there is a very grim irony in this later in the story).

    I won't tell you any more of the story, because it's far too fun to have it unfold for yourself as you read. I will say that the story itself is amazing and Philbrick puts you right in the middle of the action with his narrative and use of the notes of the men who were there. In the midst of the drama, you come away learning quite a bit about a way of life that has long since vanished.

    The way history should be - having the feel of a being about people just like us, but in wholly different circumstances. Highly recommended....more info
  • In The Heart Of The Sea
    Philbrick does a wonderful job of pulling you back in time to Nantucket Island in the 1800s. With his vivid descriptions not only can you envision the island, but you're also given a feel of how important the fishing and whaling industry was at this time, "Nantucket was a town of roof dwellers. Nearly every house, its shingles painted red or left to weather into gray, had a roof-mounted platform known as a walk. While its intended use was to facilitate putting out chimney fires with buckets of sand, the walk was also an excellent place to look out to see with a spyglass, to search for the sails of returning ships." Details are one of this author's extreme strengths. You gain a vast amount of knowledge on topics such as the roles men and women played within the Nantucket culture in history, what happens to the human body physiologically when it wastes away from starvation and dehydration, and of course; the dangerous world of whaling in history, how and why it occurred....more info
  • So you want to be a whaler? WOW!!!
    It's been a few years since a book stuck with me as much as this one. The author has combined an incredible story with detailed facts about the whaling industry of the 1800's. Well researched and a clinic on the human spirit.
    Also recommended:Guns, Germs, and Steel , Fast Food Nation...more info
  • Awesome book. A true story that reads like a novel.
    Truth really is stranger than fiction. This book was hard to put down. The author is very gifted at telling the story and weaving it all together to created a suspenseful masterpiece.

    As I read, it was easy to imagine that I could actually hear the ship's boards creaking, smell the tar and oil, hear the waves lapping against the sides of the ship and feel the sea breeze. I felt very sorry for the whales as they were exploited and hunted down without mercy.

    Later though, I felt sorry for the crew as well, some of them were only teenagers. It is hard to imagine human beings having to suffer as they did. The incredible turn of events kept me riveted because there was one horrendous ordeal after another.

    The telling of the story is graphic and raw. It leaves nothing to the imagination. It is also a story I will never forget....more info
  • The true, survival-at-sea tragedy that inspired Moby Dick
    Cannibalism! Starving seamen! A WHALE ATTACKING A SHIP AND WINNING. It is the story that Herman Melville patterned Moby Dick on, according to Philbrick, and it is a story that is so sensational and amazing that it is difficult not to become engrossed in it. Along the way, Philbrick also gives us a brief history of whaling and the island of Nantucket, but his writing style is so engaging that even this potentially dry bit of history becomes an entertaining lesson. He also addresses, briefly, the role that racism may have contributed to the survival of the seamen, leadership problems that played a part in creating the tragedy, and the question of what happened to the survivors afterwards.

    I strongly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys adventure and survival stories, or has a special interest in New England or maritime history. ...more info
  • Spectacular
    I love this vein of books. Books like Into Thin Air, Endurance (Shackeltons adventure), Touching the Void, etc. This book was a real page turner. The kind that makes you constantly wonder what you would do in a similar situation. You can't wait to find out what is going to happen to these people and see how resourceful they are and if they can find a way out of their almost impossible situation. Super fun to read....more info
  • Heart of the Sea
    The heart of the sea is a griping and page turning book. There are tons of stories about ships lost at sea. This is the first book that I have read that went in to so much detail of what happened. In the begin is not as good the history of Nantucket is not something I wanted to read. But I do have to admit that the way Nathaniel philbrick described the little close nit town was very descriptive. He made it seem like you were looking a photo of it. The book did give me some incite into how it was back then. How life was on the ship not seeing your family for years. After you get through the first couple of chapters the book starts to pick up. It is like you are reliving the whole experience of the sinking of the Essex. I would not recommend this book for animal lovers, being one my self reading what they do to the whales and other animals just to survive made me sick. But over all it is a fairly good story. ...more info
  • Outstanding in Its Genre
    Philbrick accomplished something here for which I am grateful; he wrote a masterful account of this tragedy, and found the balance between providing a sufficient amount of historical and scientific detail to fill out the story, without suffocating us in mind-numbing details about, say, the psychology of dehydrated castaways or the mating habits of birds on remote South Pacific islands. Clearly Philbrick did his research, he just doesn't kill us with it - as is often the case with books in this classification of "adventure" or "survival." A mercifully easy-to-read but informative and artistic presentation of this horrible tragedy. Beyond the survival story, this is rich in information on whaling, the whaling business, the whale oil economy, the rise and fall of Nantucket, and the high-seas culture. Highly recommended....more info
  • I was cheering for the whales
    A very good story, but as the whalers were slaughtering every whale in sight and dragging the giant Galapagos turtles into their mess halls for dinner, I was cheering for the whales....more info