When I was 10 or 11, I read the book Alive, the Story of the Andes Survivors. I can still picture scenes from the book in which the passengers (especially the Uruguayan rugby team) were freezing, injured, starving, and near death. And then they succumbed to eating the dead. I was both fascinated and disgusted. It made a strong enough impression that 40 some years later, it was the first image that came to mind when I read the description on the back of this book. The word cannibalism sent me back to reading Alive, following the survivors’ every movement until their eventual rescue. In the Heart of the Sea has that same pull. Philbrick, through in-depth research, takes us on a similar journey–this time on the whaleship Essex in 1819 when it is rammed in the middle of the South Pacific by a sperm whale that sank their boat (yes, the impetus for Melville’s Moby Dick). Withe the few provisions the crew could recover from the Essex, they set out in three teams on three lifeboats hoping to reach South America, 3,000 miles away–against prevailing winds and currents–foregoing the much closer Polynesian islands where they feared the unknown, particularly cannibals. Much of their information was unreliable, and in only a few years, it would be well known that they could have found safe harbor in any number of places within 1,000 miles of their sunken ship, using prevailing winds to get them there. The author explains that Nantucket–the whaling capital of the world at that time–was known for its arrogance and close-mindedness. Thus, most of the Nantucketers preferred 3,000 miles of open sea with little food or shelter in a tiny boat to an unknown island chain. Fear of the unknown crippled them.
Hmmm… Americans in 2016? The irony is unmistakable. Their decision to head for South America cost many lives–some died of starvation and at least one was killed because he drew the shortest straw. The others needed his body for food. The details are at times, difficult to read, but the story is a page turner, delving into the moral and societal implications. I’m always a nonfiction adventure fan, and this book felt like a fusion of Alive, the Perfect Storm, and Into Thin Air–all survival (or lack of survival) stories that captivated me.