Review: In the Heart of the Sea / by Madeleine

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Let me just preface this by saying that I am not typically a nonfiction reader. Which, if you're a reader of Top Shelf Text, you probably know by now. I have trouble getting hooked by nonfiction because I crave the types of stories that pull you in on the first page and keep you guessing (or holding your breath) the whole time. So not only is it unusual for me to be writing about a nonfiction book, it's even more rare that I am telling you to go.read.this.book. In the Heart of the Sea is the story of the shipwreck of the whaleship Essex, a captivating tale of survival and tragedy. Essentially, the story goes that the Essex set out from Nantucket in 1820, hoping to make a routine two-year voyage in which the crew would hunt whales. At the time, the oil from whales was a primary source of energy, and the reason why the island of Nantucket was growing richer while the rest of the country grew poorer.

After 15 disappointing months of capturing only a few whales, the Essex was attacked by an unusually large sperm whale. There had never before been a report of a whale purposefully attacking a whaleship before, but this whale was clearly angry as he repeatedly slamming his body into the hull of the ship. The Essex sank in less than ten minutes, leaving the crew to drift at sea in three tiny whaling boats. What happens next is heartrending and tragic: starvation, survival, and yes, even cannibalism. Philbrick did an excellent job in both giving his readers information and a feel for how the crew of the Essex felt as they struggled to rescue themselves. The book read like fiction, it was captivating and suspenseful and full of great characters. I also loved how much I learned about the culture of Nantucket in the 19th century, which was brought to life through Philbrick's extensive research. I live in a small seaside town, so I felt a strong connection to these men, who spent their lives at sea, and their families, who spent their days with their eyes trained on the horizon.

I would absolutely recommend this to both lovers of fiction and nonfiction, and especially to those who admire Moby Dick, as Herman Melville's early days as a whaler led him to the story of the Essex. His great whale was inspired by the very whale that sunk the Essex, and at least one of his characters was largely inspired by a member of the crew. In the Heart of the Sea is also set to be released as a movie this year! It's not coming out until December, but you can watch the trailer here. It's decidedly overdramatic, but I will definitely be in line to see it!

Bottom Line Rating: 5/5

  • Title: In the Heart of the Sea
  • Author: Nathaniel Philbrick
  • Publisher: Penguin, 2001
  • Price: $10 on Amazon
  • ISBN: 0141001828
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Local Little Free Library