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Given the recent popularity of true-life adventure sagas, Viking is probably correct in anticipating major interest in this accessible narrative of the tragic 1820s whaling voyage whose central disaster was the violent encounter with a sperm whale, which inspired the climactic scene in Melville's Moby Dick. Philbrick, director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies and champion sailboat racer, is well qualified to describe the issues raised by the Essex's final whale hunt. Those issues included Nantucket's unusual commercial, religious, and social characteristics; the class and racial aspects of Nantucket whaling; whaleboat crewmen's responsibilities and the maritime conditions they faced; types of whales that Nantucketers chased; the work involved in transforming the carcasses of these huge mammals into casks of oil; types of leadership appropriate at different stages of a disaster; and the biological and psychological effects of starvation, dehydration, and cannibalism. For more than 150 years, the primary source of information about the Essex was a volume that first mate Owen Chase, later a successful whaling captain, prepared with a ghostwriter; a summary by the ship's cabin boy, prepared some 50 years after the wreck, was found and published in the 1980s. Philbrick draws on both, using the cabin boy's more class-conscious narrative to correct the often self-serving prose of the mate. A fascinating tale, well told. --Mary Carroll
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In 1821, a whaling ship came upon a small boat off the coast of Chile containing two deranged men surrounded by human bones that they alternately chewed and clutched to their shriveled bodies. The two were survivors of one of the most well-known marine disasters of the 19th century: the sinking of a 240-ton Nantucket whaleship by an 80-ton sperm whale. A maritime historian, Philbrick recounts the hellish wreck of the Essex (which inspired Melville's Moby-Dick) and its sailors' struggle to make their way to South America, 2,000 miles away. Of the 20 men aboard the two boats, only eight would remain alive through the ravages of thirst, hunger and desperation that beset the voyage. With a gracefulness of language that rarely falters, Philbrick spins a ghastly, irresistible tale that draws upon archival material (including a cabin boy's journal discovered in 1960). Philbrick shows how the Quaker establishment of Nantucket ran a hugely profitable whaling industry in the 18th and 19th centuries and provides a detailed account of shipboard life. A champion sailboat racer himself, Philbrick has a particular affinity for his subject. His fastidious, extensive notes and bibliography will please historians, but it's his measured prose that superbly re-creates a cornerstone of the early American frontier ethos. 16 page photo insert not seen by PW. 15-city author tour; foreign rights sold to nine countries. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
School Library Journal
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YA-In 1819, the Essex, a Nantucket whaleship carrying a crew of 20, began what all thought would be a normal, two-year voyage. Instead, after a year and a half of near-disasters, the ship was rammed by a sperm whale and sank in the Pacific. All hands got off in three whaleboats and were at sea for three unbearable months of short rations and little fresh water, leading to the death by starvation of some and the killing of others to provide food. One boat disappeared and the two remaining eventually became separated. When rescued off the coast of Chile, only five men were still alive, including the captain and first mate, as well as three rescued later from an island. Philbrick brings the era to life, giving readers a rounded picture of the whaling industry and its society. Relying mainly on two survivors' detailed accounts, one of which has just recently been found, he fleshes out the tale in an exciting manner that sweeps readers along. He includes modern medical knowledge of the physical and mental effects of starvation on humans. The book concludes with tales of other shipwrecks, a description of how the survivors lived the rest of their lives, and an introduction to the recent work of the Nantucket Whaling Museum. The contrast between today's touristy island paradise and yesterday's hard life will not be lost on teens.-Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.