Nourishing Nonfiction: In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Written by Nathaniel Philbrick

 Due to be released as a motion picture in March 2015, this nonfiction masterpiece is well worth reading before seeing the film.  American students in the late 1800s and early 1900s would have all learned about the historical tragedy of the whaleship Essex, and yet most of the more recent generations have probably never heard of it. Herman Melville was one of the many students inspired by this tragedy at sea.


In the first few chapters of In the Heart of the Sea Philbrick guides us along the multi-year journey of a young crew and the trials that followed them from the island of Nantucket (then the whaling capital of the world) all the way to the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America.

The rest of the book chronicles an almost unbelievable survival story as the wooden ship is rammed by a giant Sperm whale and the crew is left to float in the open ocean on small whaling boats for almost three months.

Philbrick’s style weaves history, science, biography, and psychology into a delightful narrative.  It is clear that he did extensive research before writing this text as he often quotes members of the crew from their memoirs (written after surviving the horrific ordeal). He also researched the effects of starvation and dehydration on the human body, the psychological effects of being in a high-stress survival mode for so long, and the way this event inspired a young crew member on another whaleship named Herman Melville.

The most chilling piece of the tale comes toward the end of the book when the captain and one other crew member aboard a small whale boat are finally rescued by a larger whaleship in the Pacific Ocean after drifting for about 90 days.  In the last few weeks their starvation had reached such a point that they resorted to cannibalism to survive.  While this was not uncommon of sea disasters of that time, the two men are found clutching and sucking the bones of their fallen crew members and refuse to give them up.  It is during this section especially that I am thankful for Philbrick’s diligent research and explanation of the psychology and other elements that go into explaining such a dreadful scene.

I don’t like sailing or whaling, but I thoroughly enjoyed this read.  Surprisingly I even enjoyed and learned from one scene that detailed quite clearly the way a Sperm whale was hunted and stripped for oil in the early 1800s. On a more personal note, getting to read this book out loud with my father was truly memorable and I would suggest reading it out loud (even to yourself) if you can.  Philbrick has a way with words that lends itself to being read aloud.  If you enjoy history, Moby Dick, survival stories, the open ocean, Nantucket, or if you just want to preview the book before the movie like any good English teacher would do… you’ll love this read! 🙂

If you’re intrigued, please read this review of In the Heart of the Sea written by a fellow blogger and posted on April 4, 2014.  This review goes into greater detail about the journey the men took and it is worth reading before purchasing the book.  Enjoy! This book only took me a few days to read once I got into it.

Nourishing Nonfiction: In the Heart of the Sea

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