Sunday, 20 March 2011

Revenge of the Whale by Nathaniel Philbrick


In November 1820 an American whaling ship in the Pacific Ocean was rammed and sunk by a vengeful sperm whale. All twenty members of the crew escaped alive in three small boats with limited supplies of food and water. What follows has to be one of the most terrifying and horrific ordeals a human being has endured as the survivors end up lost at sea with little hope of getting home. As the crew slowly starve to death in agony they are forced to think the unthinkable; Should their dead crewmates be buried at sea or eaten to sustain the remaining sailors?

I can't recall how I stumbled upon this book but i'm delighted I did as it turned out to be one of those little gems in the world of non-fiction: an account of true events that is easy to read and consistently gripping throughout.

What the whalers went through is quite amazing and disturbing at the same time. The author has a way of making the reader very uncomfortable indeed with vivid descriptions of the living conditions these men were forced to tolerate bobbing around in a small boat contending with storms, the burning sun, sleep deprivation and sharks not to mention the lack of food and water. The description of what happens to the human body when it is dying of dehydration alone made me reach for a glass of water before continuing!

The book poses all sorts of questions and really provides food for thought. I suppose some people would have little sympathy for the men considering the cruel and violent way they earned a living and would think it poetic justice that the whale had its revenge on them. I tried to view their plight objectively and put aside what the men did and focused on how they behaved after their shipwreck. Eventually the crew had to resort to eating their shipmates to stay alive. Keeping in mind that the majority of the twenty survivors were white I noticed that when a black sailor died he was quickly devoured with seemingly little or no concern however when a white sailor died there was uncertainly, hesitation and even outright rejection of the idea of eating them. Make of that what you will.

I find it remarkable that so few people in the UK have heard of the whaling ship Essex and the plight of her crew, to me it is a tale that epitomises the sheer lengths a human being will go to in order to survive not to mention the punishment a human body and mind can tolerate.

It is worth mentioning that this book has been adapted from a longer, more detailed account of the same event written by the same author called 'In The Heart of the Sea'

Final verdict 4/5

Chris

9 comments:

  1. I love the sound of this book! It sounds weird, but I really enjoy books like this, where people have to do terrible things in order to survive. The fact it is true makes it appeal even more. I'm also a bit in love with everythign involving whales at the moment. Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention.

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  2. I was reading your review thinking 'this sounds like a good story' but it's even better that it's non-fiction. It's gone straight on my wishlist.

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  3. I loved In the Heart of the Sea and been a big fan of Mr. Philbrick since it came out. His book Mayflower is also wonderful.

    I was sure my 7th graders would love this one, so I bought a set for my classroom book clubs. I've managed to get a group to read it each year, but they've never liked it. A few students, yes, but very few. Kids.

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  4. @ Jackie: I'm willing to bet you'll like this book! :o) It was great fun to read and certainly leaves an impression.

    @ Sam: The story does sound like fiction as it is so improbable but I guess thats both the beauty and terror of life: almost anything is possible!

    @ C.B James: Sorry to hear your 7th graders didn't appreciate the book. It always makes me a little sad (and possibly bitter) if someone dislikes a book I really liked! lol

    Chris

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  5. I think this story was the inspiration for Moby Dick. It is years since I read the story but I still recall the horror and the power.

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  6. My husband would probably like this -- he reads alot of books based on or about real events. Thanks!

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  7. @ Anthony: This was the story that inspired Moby Dick and it's not difficult to see why. The only thing missing was the mad sea captain! lol

    @ Georgia Girls: I hope he does like it. It made for a very interesting read, I've recommended it to quite a few people!

    Chris

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