In the Heart of the Sea is the book that led me to non-fiction. Nathanial Philbrick’s prose is gripping and evocative; his research academically rigorous. This is a book that grabbed me, gave me a good hard shake and turned me into a much better writer. At the time I pressed this book upon everyone I knew, like some sort of modern-day ancient mariner.
In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of the whaling ship Essex, lost in the Pacific Ocean in 1820. The preface contains a scene that is with me still.
A Nantucket whaleship was making her way up the Chilean coast when the lookout saw something unusual. A boat, impossibly small for the open sea, bobbing on the swells. The ship’s captain soon realised it was a derelict whaleboat and had the helmsman bring the ship as close as possible.
Even though their momentum quickly swept them past it, the brief seconds during which the ship loomed over the open boat presented a sight that would stay with the crew for the rest of their lives. First they saw bones – human bones – littering the thwarts and floorboards, as if the whaleboat were the seagoing lair of a ferocious, man-eating beast. Then they saw the two men. They were curled up in opposite ends of the boat, their skin covered with sores, their eyes bulging from the hollows of their skulls, their beards caked with salt and blood. They were sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates.
Instead of greeting their rescuers with smiles of relief, the survivors – too delirious with thirst and hunger to speak – were disturbed, even frightened. They jealously clutched the splintered and gnawed over bones with a desperate, almost feral intensity, refusing to give them up, like two starving dogs trapped in a pit. Later, once the survivors had been given some food and water (and had finally surrendered the bones), one of them found the strength to tell his story. It was a tale made of a whaleman’s worst nightmares: of being in a boat far from land with nothing to eat or drink and – perhaps worst of all – of a whale with the vindictiveness and guile of a man.
What a brilliant beginning! Philbrick cleverly refrains from telling the reader the names of the men found in starving in the boat and most of the rest of the book is spent finding out who they were how they got there, and what happened to the rest of the Essex crew. Unsurprisingly, the circumstances of the Essex‘s demise are said to have been the inspiration for Moby Dick.
In the Heart of the Sea won the USA’s National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2000. Nathanial Philbrick is (or was, according the blurb on the back of my well-thumbed copy) director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies on Nantucket Island and a research fellow at the Nantucket Historical Association. He has written extensively about the history of the island and also, as a champion sailboat racer, about sailing.
In the Heart of the Sea was followed by Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, in 2003. In 2006, Philbrick published a new history of the founding of the Plymouth colony in the United States, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn was published in May 2010. His book, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution about Boston during the early years of the Revolution was published on April 30, 2013. Of these other books I’ve only read Mayflower and, from distant memory, I didn’t love it. It just didn’t have In the Heart of the Sea‘s verve and excitement.
And now In the Heart of the Sea has been made into a film, due for release in December 2015. Sigh. Like every ten-year old obsessed with Harry Potter, like every Tolkien fanboy, I can’t imagine how I could possibly love the screen version as much as the book. And yet… It was Colin Firth who ‘encouraged’ me to first read Pride and Prejudice. Russell Crowe was actually pretty good as Captain Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander. And although making the The Hobbit into a trilogy was just a teensy bit too obviously a commercial decision (cough *cash-cow* cough cough) I will confess that my son and I enjoyed our annual Boxing Day treat immensely.
So yes. I will go and see In the Heart of the Sea. It is directed by Ron Howard, so that’s a plus. And it stars Chris Hemsworth. So even if it’s awful, at least I’ll have an hour or two of eye-candy ;-) It’s a win-win, really!