Title: In The Heart Of The Sea

Author: Nathaniel Philbrick

Year Of Publication: 2000

Genre: Historical non-fiction, survival

Summary: In the early part of the 18th Century, it was whale oil that lit America’s cities. As the country grew, so too did the need for this vicious goop. That led whalemen to travel the oceans in search of the next catch and haul.

During this time, most of these whalemen were running in and out of Nantucket, Massachusetts. This was the hub. In the Heart of the Sea tells the true story of the South America-bound whaleship Essex, which sunk in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 2,000 miles from South America, and the men who attempt to make it back home. It’s the story that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.

Philbrick is considered a leading authority on the history of the island and his knowledge of this and its chief industry is overwhelmingly apparent in this work, the winner of the 2000 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Thoroughly detailed. Ever want to know what a Nantucket Sleigh Ride is? What about navigating a quickly approaching squall? Read on, fill thine cup with knowledge.

Philbrick crafts his narrative through two primary texts: the first was written by the first mate of the Essex, Owen Chase. The second, a recently authenticated (in the 1980’s) account written by deckhand Thomas Nickerson. The Nickerson account identifies several important inaccuracies in what Chase published. With the combination, what we get is a tragic tale of capitalism gone wrong and the heroic tale of survival that follows it.

It’s not characters that drive this story forward – Owen Chase is and remained an insufferable asshole – rather the degree to which these men were subjected to survive an impossible journey. Not everyone does, of course, and Philbrick does not shy away from painting the horrible and unimaginable necessities of survival. How far must one go?  

TL;DR: How do you survive a shipwreck? You eat people.

Verdict: Listen to our podcast on the subject. Suffice it to say, this book is amazingly researched and the struggle the characters endure is horrifying and addicting.