book review

“In the Heart of the Sea” by Nathaniel Philbrick

Philbrick, Nathaniel. In the Heart of the Sea 
Viking, 2000
Hardcover, 289 pages
ISBN 0-670-89157-6


At the beginning of the nineteenth century the American whaling industry centered around Nantucket Island. Young boys of Nantucket were taught to “idolize the form of a ship” and grew up anticipating the day when they, too, would join a whaling crew: “One [Nantucket] mother approvingly recounted how her nine-year-old son attached a fork to the end of a ball of darning cotton and then proceeded to harpoon the family cat. […] Like a veteran boatsteerer, the boy shouted, ‘Pay out, mother! Pay out! There she sounds through the window!’” (p. 13).

With whale oil in high demand, Nantucketers made a good living. But because they had depleted the local whale population by 1760, the ships had to make increasingly longer voyages to fill their casks. When the whale ship Essex left Nantucket in 1819, everyone expected her to return in about two years carrying enough whale oil to make her owners rich.

But 15 months later, in the middle of the South Pacific, a huge sperm whale rammed the Essex. The 22 crew members, who had salvaged only a small amount of food, water, and other supplies, drifted in three small life boats and watched their ship sink. Believing the common stories of cannibals on the islands to the west, they decided to head for the distant coast of South America. Over the next three months they traveled more than 4,500 miles.

Nathaniel Philbrick, director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies and a research fellow with the Nantucket Historical Association, weaves the stories of Nantucket, the whaling industry, the wreck of the Essex, and the ordeal of the survivors into a compelling narrative. He makes it easy to see why the story, which inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick, took such hold in the popular imagination.

In the Heart of the Sea was popular with our book group. In addition to the background about Nantucket Island and the whaling industry, group members discussed questions such as these:

  • What does it take to survive under such harsh conditions?
  • Why did some men survive the ordeal while others died?
  • What makes a good leader?
  • What would I do in a similar situation? Would I be able to survive?

© 2004 by Mary Daniels Brown

Discover more from Notes in the Margin

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading

Scroll to Top