In the Heart of the Sea – Philbrick – Couples Book Night

As part of an “inaugural town-wide reading initiative,” our library chose In the Heart of the Sea, the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex for its first selection.  Nathaniel Philbrick earned the National Book Award for this retelling of the fateful 1819 voyage from Nantucket. (Link to book)

This ill-fated story inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.


My reading group (The 3Bs for Books, Banter, & Booze) agreed to read the selection and invited our husbands, a first. Group members were concerned they might not read the book or wouldn’t sit through a discussion. So we sent a reminder for Couples Night with “reading encouraged but optional.”

As it turned out, the men changed the tone of the discussion in a good way. Seven couples came and two of the men didn’t read the book but stayed for the meeting.

We discussed the whaling industry in Nantucket, circa 1800s.   Whale blubber was used to fuel lamps and for lubrication in industry.  A whaleship of twenty-one men and five whale boats left port for a couple years until it filled its hold.  It was a mobile processing plant, tracking, hunting and killing whales then stripping and refining the blubber. Early on, there were whales off shore, but as demand and the industry grew, ships head farther out to sea, traversed the Atlantic, rounded Cape Horn into the Pacific, and hunted whale.

Philbrick wrote about all of it: life on Nantucket, the hunt, the kill, the processing of oil, the shipwreck.  About 1500 miles west of the Galapagos, the ship was rammed and sunk by a gigantic sperm whale.  The crew escaped with as much food and water as three small boats could hold.

Route of the Essex and whale attack in the Pacific after 15 months at sea.


The rest is a story of survival with details and gore about thirst, starvation, and cannibalization.

This is the kind of story where you know the end at the beginning, with a subtitle “Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” as hint enough.

The book is a case study in leadership and survival and I moderated the discussion around these themes.  We had a lively meeting.

The host’s daughter read the abridged version and gave us her take.  She found it gory.  It had little appeal for her and we appreciated her candor.

It was an unusual opening to an unusual meeting.

We reviewed our rules of not appraising the book before discussion, equal time, and agreeing to disagree.  Then members read and analyzed passages.  Scott read the ship’s contract from Chapter Two.

Respected Friend,

As thou are master of the Ship Essex now lying without the bar at anchor, our orders are, that thou shouldst proceed to sea the first fair wind and proceed for the Pacifick Ocean, and endeavor to obtain a load of Sperm Oil and when accomplished to make the best dispatch for this place.  Thou are forbidden to hold any illicit trade.  Thou are forbidden to carry on thyself or to suffer any person belonging to this ship Essex to carry on any trade except it should be necessary for the preservation of the ship Essex or her crew: wishing thee a short and prosperous voyage, with a full portion of happiness we remain thy friends.

In behalf of the owners of the ship Essex,

Gideon Folger, Paul Macy

(Chapter 2, Knockdown)

This paragraph is refreshing, especially when contrasted with the three pages required for my son’s recent field trip which I shared at the meeting.  The first page was a medical waiver, the next was the park’s hold harmless agreement, the last was a media release and personal responsibility statement.  Each had paragraphs of fine print and required multiple signatures.  All for one day.

I asked the group what they thought then directed the question to the lawyer in the room. A distinguished and thoughtful gentleman, he listened to the laughter about the field trip forms and responded.

“It’s pithy,” he said.

This did not light the fire to the topic as I hoped.  For the purposes of this letter, I want to reveal what a sorry state of legalese and liability we have when a single paragraph sufficed to guide a captain’s crew for years on the seas and today three pages are required for a student outing.

Details like the letter, the history of the industry, the Nantucket community, and the life of the whalemen are the best parts of the story and Philbrick flexed his writing muscle here, annotating forty pages of notes and a ten page bibliography.


Whaleboats dispatched from the ship to harpoon whale and attach to its prey, “launching the boat and crew on [its] first Nantucket sleigh ride.”


The men mentioned Philbrick’s modern slant on the story, how it shaped his telling to support his interpretation, a trap a good historian should avoid.

Philbrick exposed contradictions in the Quaker community, the bloodlust of the hunt and their religious beliefs in pacifism.  They reconciled themselves to the task by exalting God’s belief of man’s dominion over the animals.  A Quaker elder named Peleg Folger who was once a whaleman explained this view:

Thou didst, O Lord, create the mighty whale,

That wondrous monster of a mighty length;

Vast is his head and body, vast his tail,

Beyond conception is unmeasured strength.


But, everlasting God, thou dost ordain

That we, poor feeble mortals should engage

(ourselves, our wives and children to maintain),

This dreadful monster with a martial rage.

(Chapter 1, Nantucket)

After this verse, Philbrick wrote that the Quakers maintained a “peaceful life on land while raising bloody havoc at sea.” He closed with this: “Pacifist killers, plain-dressed millionaires, the whalemen of Nantucket were simply fulfilling the Lord’s will.”

Folger’s poem is near reverent for the whale: a monster it is, mighty and vast and strong beyond conception.  And by comparison, he saw himself as a “feeble” mortal.  Yet Philbrick cast the whalemen as cold-blooded and his modern conceit raised its ugly head throughout the book.  He chided them for the folly of their livelihood, mocked them with monikers, and blamed them for the decimation of the species.

Philbrick is right on this last point, driving it home at the book’s end.

It is estimated that the Nantucketers and their Yankee whale-killing brethren harvested more than 225,000 sperm whales between 1804 and 1876…… Some researchers believe that by the 1860s whalemen may have reduced the world’s sperm-whale population by as much as 75 percent. ….Today there are between one and a half to two million sperm whales, making them the most abundant of the world’s great whales. (Chapter 14, Consequences)

Hindsight makes it easy to judge our predecessors.  But scarcity and necessity introduced kerosene which crippled the whaling industry, ending Nantucket’s prominent role in our nation’s economy. Philbrick’s slant on this is tantamount to judging the Cherokee and colonialists for their sustenance and livelihood in the deerskin trade which resulted in the near extinction of the deer population.

Philbrick also highlighted Pollard’s leadership failures and we analyzed these. On three occasions the Captain reversed his decisions.  The first was to continue the voyage despite suffering an early “knockdown,” and the second decision to sail to the nearby islands was overruled to pursue a 3000 mile circuitous journey to South America.  For the third time, the Captain reversed his decision and allowed his crew to draw lots to determine who would die to feed the starved crew.  The outcome resulted in his nephew’s demise.

Members said the story was “riveting.”  The men liked the adventure and I liked learning about the lifestyle, the ship, and the times.  I lost interest after the whale attack and found the aftermath tedious and gruesome.

The group shared their own stories and the men mentioned other survival situations like Shackleton’s expedition.  Having men and women in the discussion was a fuller, more enriching experience.

My husband asked if all our meetings were like that and Kate’s reclusive husband enjoyed the evening despite his disdain for social gatherings.  It’s a memorable idea, our town’s reading initiative.  In our case, we forged new connections with a young reader and our husbands.

The lawyer suggested a new name for such meetings: the 4Bs or Books, Banter, Booze, & Boys.




Jun 26, 2014


About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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