This is a first rate, well crafted work of non-fiction. The author has a gift for putting together a compelling narrative about the unusual ordeal of the whale ship, Essex, which sailed out of Nantucket and was done in on the high seas by an extremely aggressive sperm whale who attacked it. So complete was the damage that the ship sank, its crew of twenty cast adrift upon a seemingly infinite ocean to find their way back home in three small boats. This real life, unheard of attack by a whale was the basis for Herman Melville's classic work of fiction, "Moby Dick".
What the author does is ground what happened to these most unfortunate of men in the historical context of the time. He paints a picture of the milieu in which they lived. Their lives were governed entirely by the whaling industry that was the bread and butter for Nantucket Island, the whaling capital of the world.
Drawing upon narratives by some of the survivors, as well as other historical data, he paints in intricate detail what life must have been like for these men. He weaves a tapestry of early nineteenth century life on the island of Nantucket and the preeminence of whaling in the lives of those who lived there, as well as the role of the Quakers. In essence, he brings the men, who were involved in this most notorious of survival at sea stories, to life for the reader.
It is a balanced narrative. This was to be the first voyage as Captain for the democratic George Pollard, who was teamed up with a very aggressive and ambitious first mate, Owen Chase. This was later to prove to be a poor combination. Nearly a third of the crew was African-American, which was an interesting twist, arising out of the abolitionist views of the Quakers, whose views were the mainstay of Nantucket. Most of the crew was very young, the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, being but fourteen years of age.
When the Essex was attacked while on the high seas by a gigantic, aggressive sperm whale and destroyed in the process, the story of the what happened to the crew makes for one of the most engrossing and amazing stories of survival ever to be told. Against the odds, eight of them survived their ordeal, which lasted for months. Dehydration and starvation were to drive them to a new frontier of human behavior. That threshold, however, once crossed, was one that would forever haunt those who survived. Their agonizing journey and foray into anthropophagy is chillingly chronicled.
This is a riveting and triumphant book. It is a tale richly told by a masterful storyteller, who is able to make this work of non-fiction come to life for the reader. It is simply a great book.